Ten days or so ago, ITV’s EU referendum debate saw a sparky Remain team attack Boris Johnson personally, which had the effect of making him the star of the show, while their dogged Leave opponents stuck to their Vote Leave, Take Control script. Tonight, the same pattern emerged, but with significant differences.
- Remain undertook a team change as sweeping as any masterminded by Roy Hodgson. Out went Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Eagle. In came Ruth Davidson and Sadiq Khan, plus the TUC’s Frances O’Grady. For all Davidson’s presence, the absence of an SNP spokesman and of Eagle, with her Liverpool credentials, made the Remain team feel more younger, more Londonish and, on balance, more Labour. That may have been a marginal plus for Remain.
- Leave, by contrast, were almost unchanged: Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and – interesting, this – Andrea Leadsom again. Leave decided not to take a risk by putting on Digby Jones instead. Very blue.
- Remain still targeted Boris, though without the Cameron-and-Osborne-approved attack lines that Amber Rudd delivered. And the ex-Mayor was still at the centre of the show.
- But for the first time in these debates, there was a sense of him being challenged, and perhaps overtaken, by the younger generation. Ruth Davidson did a mass of TV debates during the Scottish referendum and her experience paid off. She was passionate, shouty, aggressive, eloquent, a bit loose with the facts, interruption-prone – and deeply impressive. Not all Conservatives watching will have liked it. None the less, the point was unmissable: our fortnightly columnist has star quality.
- The auditorium was big, the acoustics echoey, the audience whooped and yelled, the teams talked across each other. There was also a second panel to comment on the first. (Why not a third to comment on the second?)
- Remain asked some sharp questions on the economy, Leave made the best of the immigration issue. But I don’t think either broke through overall.
- O’Grady was Labour, Labour, Labour – and thus did her job. Stuart was authoritative and Leadsom cool under fire. Khan was well-scripted but not, in my view, quick on his feet. He and Boris – who again did his bit and delivered a rousing peroration – plus Davidson presented a ghostly foreglimpse of possible future leadership and election contests, if the latter ever travels south to Westminster. Boris v Davidson. Boris v Khan. Khan v Davidson. Two men who haven’t just been MPs. And one woman who has never been one. Sign of the times.
All in all, there was a lot of inside-the-beltway fun but not much to move outside-the-beltway voters. I would count it a no-score draw. But the setting, the personnel, much of the audience and the tone felt, to me, very London-flavoured. Not sure what those watching outside the M25 will have thought.