Unfortunately, last night’s Sun Showdown on TalkTV was cut short – although happily Kate McCann is back on her feet and a second debate has been confirmed.
But what we got was a rather bleak reminder of the real scale of the challenge facing whoever becomes our next prime minister.
The format likely helped. Although both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss still tended to retreat towards their comfort zone of macro-economic policy and arguing over tax cuts, it is probably not a coincidence it was questions from the public which finally managed to move the debate on to such topics as the National Health Service and the cost of living.
I can’t have been the only person who found it jarring when someone asked whether they and their family should stop eating meat because they could no longer afford to buy it more than twice a week.
Music to the ears of a certain sort of puritan, of course – the outcomes of a meat tax before even introducing one! – but a reminder of what becoming a poor country looks like in the day-to-day. And the UK is on track to becoming, relative to our international peers, a poor country.
Cheap food used to be the rally cry of the free trade movement which, according to Truss, is how this country “became great”. Was there any mention of using imports to get affordable meat back into Britain’s shopping baskets? Of course not. Both candidates represent rural constituencies.
Likewise, both had proposals for playing around with the structure of the NHS but neither strayed even close to the third rail that is admitting that the Health Service is simply not a very good way to deliver universal healthcare. The structure used in Britain is entirely atypical, as is the perennial fear of the whole system falling over and the shadow that fear casts over the lives of the less well-off. Yet it won’t change.
And although we didn’t get to the end of last night’s scheduled programme, so it might have bucked the trend, as things stand we once again got through another debate without either candidate even speaking the word ‘housing’. Yet the cost of housing is one of the biggest barriers to growth.
Having been in power for 12 years, the Tories need to shoulder their share of the blame for this state of affairs. But unless you’re one of that blinkered sort who thinks everything was fine until Brexit, there is plenty of blame to go around. The housing crisis has been visible on the horizon for decades, as have the problems with the NHS.
It has been much commented upon how much Margaret Thatcher has cropped up in this debate so far. But there is not much sign yet of anyone prepared to do what she did and challenge some of the fundamentals of the political order of the day. Tough words for the unions is all well and good, but striking bold poses against the vested interests of the Eighties is no substitute for confronting those of our own day.
Unless and until we get a leader prepared to do that, this country’s long-term trajectory will continue to trend towards being poorer, and politicians will have to make harder and harder choices about how to divvy up a shrinking pie.