On Tuesday, July 26, the UK’s fledgling news channel TalkTV scheduled a Conservative Party leadership debate with The Sun for 6 p.m.:

Kate McCann was the moderator.

She was to have been joined by Guido Fawkes alumnus Harry Cole, The Sun‘s political editor, but he had coronavirus:

TalkTV asked for questions from viewers, as well as their audience, half of whom had voted Conservative in 2019.

It promised to be a debate quite unlike the ones on Channel 4 and the BBC:

With The Sun involved, one knew that the candidates would get hard-hitting questions rather than boring ones from the media establishment.

In the opening round, Kate McCann gave the candidates 60 seconds each to present themselves and their platform.

Rishi Sunak did well …

… even if he was still in Tony Blair mode and sounded like Labour’s Keir Starmer …

… but Liz Truss had to glance at her notes:

Then it was on to the questions.

It was gratifying to see that the audience members, both in person and remotely, asked them of the candidates directly.

The first one came from John Hughes in Birmingham, who spoke remotely. He is a cancer patient and said that, since the pandemic, he has had a very difficult time getting the care and the support he needs. He said that a cancer charity has been helping him but the NHS and Macmillan Cancer Support nurses have not been available:

Rishi said that it was good that John was getting the support he needed. John retorted that he was not getting the support he needed. Rishi corrected himself.

Rishi gave a long answer, which did not respond to the question.

The Times has the dialogue:

Sunak said that he had been criticised for raising national insurance contributions to tackle the NHS backlog and fund social care reform, but that it was a “brave decision” and the right thing to do.

Liz said that she would reform the NHS, reducing layers of management so that the focus could be on patient care rather than bureaucracy:

I want to see fewer layers of management in the National Health Service and less central direction because I simply don’t think that people can sit there in Whitehall and direct everything that happens in local communities across our country.

It seemed that John preferred her answer to Rishi’s. At least Liz offered a plan. Kate McCann asked John what he thought. He said that:

he remained unconvinced by their answers and stated that the Conservative Party had been given 12 years to fix the NHS.

The next question came from a member of the studio audience. A lady said that she was used to buying steak several times a week, however, the price has gone up so much that she can no longer afford to buy meat of any kind. She asked whether she should become vegetarian:

The Times reported:

The debate then moved on to the cost of living, with Gemma from Manchester, a Sun reader, telling the candidates about the rising cost of meat in supermarkets and asking if more people should go vegetarian to save money.

Rishi said:

he would ensure that prices came down by “making sure that the supermarkets and all the other people in the supply chain are being fair in how they price these things [and that] no one is taking advantage of the situation to pass on price rises.”

Surely, although I agree with the principle, if everyone in the supply chain is being fairly remunerated, prices will go up even further.

Liz told Gemma that becoming vegetarian was ‘a choice’ and one that the Government leaves to individuals.

I understood what Gemma meant by asking about vegetarianism, because with this year’s price rises, it does seem as if that is the end game.

Bloomberg’s Alex Wickham summed up this refreshing debate well:

For once, we had real people asking about real problems.

However, the candidates reverted to a subject with which they were more comfortable — tax cuts.

As the i paper‘s Hugo Gye pointed out, it seemed as if Rishi and Liz still couldn’t connect with the audience as well as a certain Prime Minister — Boris Johnson:

Harry Cole, watching from home, tweeted this at 6:27 p.m.:

The Times reported:

The candidates’ response quickly turned to the economy, with Truss saying that Sunak’s manifesto-breaking tax rises had been “morally wrong” as she accused the former chancellor of having policies which are “making us less competitive” as a country.

Sunak said that tackling inflation remained his priority but suggested that some businesses were also profiteering from the cost of living crisis. He said he would ensure that prices came down by “making sure that the supermarkets and all the other people in the supply chain are being fair in how they price these things [and that] no one is taking advantage of the situation to pass on price rises.”

Sunak also defended his plans to increase corporation tax. He said: “I think it’s entirely reasonable to ask the largest companies in this country, just the top 10 per cent of companies, to pay a bit more because they’re received a lot of help during the pandemic.”

Truss countered by telling Sunak: “You’ve made it worse”. “Companies have a choice about whether they invest in the UK or whether they invest elsewhere. Rishi’s policies are making us less competitive,” she said.

The Mail‘s Henry Deedes described other exchanges between the candidates and the optics. Rishi still looked vexed when Liz contradicted him. Liz almost fell into the same trap this time (emphases mine):

Rishi seemed to have eased a little on the caffeine since the night before.

He’d also rediscovered his manners and used his opening spiel to wish his opponent a happy birthday. Truss, 47 yesterday, shot him an icicle smile

The Foreign Secretary wore a purple dress the colour of a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk wrapper. Très snazzy. She went into a brief monologue about how her upbringing was more modest than Sunak’s. ‘I know what it looks like when economic times are hard,’ she said. Rishi bit down and resisted making a tart response. There was a bit of early tit-for-tat, but nothing that required Kate to pull them apart. The candidates had a brief struggle over who had the stronger family connections to the NHS. ‘My father was GP,’ said Rishi. ‘Well, my mother was nurse!’ countered Liz

Tempers frayed whenever Truss began to discuss her economic plans. Rishi’s blood pressure would visibly spike, his eyes flickering from side to side as if to say: ‘Leave the maths to me, luv.’ 

Once again their main beef was over taxes – Liz wants to cut them, Rishi thinks it’s unaffordable to do so. 

He accused Truss of funding her cuts by saddling future generations with more debt. ‘That’s not true, that’s not true!’ Liz retorted, shaking her head crossly. 

Kate McCann was doing an excellent job as moderator, keeping everything going at a rolling pace which made it interesting. I was settling into an unusual comfort zone, which I normally don’t do when watching debates.

Just after 6:30 p.m., Kate asked Liz a question.

While Liz was speaking, viewers at home could hear a soft rocking noise, possibly a perspex podium against the floor.

Seconds later, there was a crash of perspex on the floor.

Viewers saw this:

The Telegraph‘s Tim Stanley was also watching from home and describes what happened:

It was one of the strangest, most shocking moments in TV history. Liz Truss was in the middle of denouncing Russia with her characteristic tics – her hands gripping that invisible tea tray for dear life – when there was an almighty crash off-screen.

“Oh my God!” Liz covered her mouth. Then she stepped towards the camera.

Turns out that poor Kate McCann, the talented journalist and host, had fainted.

Rishi also went to Kate’s aid, but we didn’t see that.

We didn’t know what had happened.

The Mail reported:

A loud noise caused the clearly worried Foreign Secretary to hold her face in shock as she exclaimed: ‘Oh my God!’. Ms Truss was then seen leaving her podium and walking towards where Miss McCann had been standing.

The broadcast feed was swiftly cut, with viewers shown the message: ‘We’re sorry for the disruption to this programme. We’re working hard to fix the issue and will return to normal programming soon.’

Stanley wrote:

For 25 excruciating minutes, viewers speculated if a light had fallen, a bomb had gone off, or Boris Johnson had rushed the stage demanding to be heard – all the while that producers tried to carry on as normal by cutting to a promo for their other shows.

What were they thinking? That this was a great chance to promote their product? We’re lucky they didn’t try to flog us some diamante earrings …

debating tax policy is exactly how Liz would want to spend her birthdayand though the evening took an alarming turn, the gods did her a favour by having the camera focused on her when Kate passed out. Liz’s instinct to run towards the disaster did her credit, a reminder that whatever her job, she is first and foremost a mum.

And her mother was a nurse!

Just before 7 p.m., when the debate would have ended:

TalkTV put on two talking heads who calmly discussed what we’d been watching – vegetarian options, clown doctors – without substantial reference to the one bit we were all shouting at the telly about: “What the hell just happened?!”

It was surreal: the commercial equivalent of Soviet TV cutting from the coup against Gorbachev to 72 hours of Swan Lake. Thankfully, Twitter was still reporting the news: Kate was ok. By then it was 7pm and time for Piers Morgan’s landmark show on Ukraine – at which point what was probably TalkTV’s largest ever audience, all 250 of us, turned off.

Kate, you’re a star and your peers wish you the very best.

Henry Deedes said:

Doctor’s orders were that she was done for the evening. It must have been frustrating for Team Rishi, who are running out of time. The former chancellor has agreed to be interviewed by that fearsome rottweiler of an interviewer, Andrew Neil, on Channel 4 on Friday. For politicians, such encounters rarely end well.

The candidates spent the remaining half hour talking to the studio audience:

Kate received many supportive messages.

Harry Cole tweeted:

BBC Newsnight‘s Nicholas Watt complimented Kate on her moderation of the debate:

The candidates also sent their best wishes, saying they would like to return to finish the debate:

I hope the debate is rescheduled — and agree that it should pick up where it left off:

Harry Cole is an excellent journalist.

That night, The Sun reported that, after all these days of insisting his tax plan was the right thing to do, Rishi decided to do an about-face and cut VAT on energy bills.

But has he stolen Work and Pensions Minister Thérèse Coffey’s idea? Hmm:

Polling results must have been eating away at the former Chancellor.

The Telegraph also carried the story on its front page for Wednesday:

The Mail alleges that this was Boris’s plan but Rishi wouldn’t allow it:

Rishi Sunak makes a desperate bid to claw back lost ground in the Tory leadership race today by promising a £4billion VAT cut on energy bills just hours after he and his rival Liz Truss led tributes to TalkTV presenter Kate McCann after she fainted live on air.

The former chancellor has repeatedly refused to match rival Liz Truss on cutting taxes, labelling her plans a ‘fairytale’ and insisted such cuts must wait until inflation is curbed.

But today he pledges to scrap the 5 per cent VAT rate levied on domestic energy bills for a year.

Last night No10 insiders told the Daily Mail that this plan was something Boris Johnson tried to implement to ease the burden on consumers – but was blocked by Mr Sunak.

‘Boris begged him to do it – but he wouldn’t budge’, said the source. ‘It’s astonishing that he’s now claiming it as his own policy.’

A source close to Liz Truss’s campaign told The Telegraph: ‘It’s good that Rishi has finally woken up and decided to offer something to people struggling with the rising cost of living.

‘However, this feels like a screeching U-turn from someone who has spent the last few weeks of the leadership campaign branding everyone else’s tax cuts immoral and fairytales.’

The article states that this was also Labour’s policy:

Mr Sunak’s energy bill tax move, which would save an average household £160, has been Labour Party policy for nearly a year, and Mr Sunak voted against the proposal in the Commons in January.

He told the Commons in February that the policy would ‘disproportionately benefit wealthier households’.

He added: ‘This would become a permanent £2.5billion Government subsidy… when we are trying to rebuild the public finances.’

This month he argued that tax cuts are ‘immoral because there is nothing noble or good about racking up bills on the country’s credit card that we then pass on to our children and grandchildren’.

One can understand his point, but when the Work and Pensions Minister and the Prime Minister both want it, it’s the right thing to do.

I read only this week that VAT is an EU tax. Therefore, we can scrap it.

No one ever mentions that VAT is an EU tax. Why not?

The Mail says:

Until yesterday [Wednesday] Mr Sunak had refused to consider tax cuts before autumn 2023, the earliest point when a 1p cut in the basic rate of income tax could come in.

Autumn 2023 would be way too late, especially if our next general election is held in May 2024.

The Telegraph reported that Rishi’s team denied a U-turn:

The Sunak camp denied there had been a U-turn, adding that the tax cut was “a tool that was always in our arsenal”.

“We didn’t use it back in spring because the size of the jump of the bills was way bigger, and it wouldn’t have touched the sides,” a source said. “This is a response to latest estimates that suggest the rise might be £100-200 more than anticipated.”

For me, this volte face comes too late in the contest, because Rishi was adamant in three debates that he would not cut taxes.

As such, in Truss we trust.

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UPDATEGuido Fawkes posted TalkTV’s ratings for Tuesday night. The debate’s ‘off air’ message beat Piers Morgan’s show by far:

Morgan tweeted McCann, who has since recovered:

On Wednesday, July 27, the i paper reported ructions at TalkTV about the interruption of the debate, with staff asking why it didn’t continue with another presenter:

Rupert Murdoch’s TalkTV is holding an inquest into why there was no “plan B” to keep its Prime Ministerial debate on air after presenter Kate McCann fainted.

Presenters at TalkTV and its sister radio station were said to be ready and able to jump in and replace the stricken presenter during the abandoned live broadcast, i has been told.

As panic spread, executives asked Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to remain at their podiums at the Ealing studio, normally used for Piers Morgan’s nightly programme, while they considered their options.

However it was decided that stunned viewers would continue to be shown a recorded message saying normal programming would resume, rather than restart with a new presenter.

Trouble began behind the scenes when planned co-presenter Harry Cole was forced to pull out on the morning of the debate after contracting Covid.

An insider said: Tom Newton Dunn (presenter of TalkTV’s 7pm news show) would have stepped up to co-present but the bosses wanted Kate to front it solo as a showcase for her.”

McCann, Talk’s political editor, was said to be “nervous” at fronting the high-profile event but had shown no sign of ill health, even during the broadcast’s first half hour.

The source said: “It was very sudden. She crashed forward into the podium. That was the loud bang viewers heard.”

Truss, speaking on camera at the moment, said “oh my god” and rushed over towards McCann. At that point, with the clock showing 6.31pm, the channel cut from the debate.

“Rishi also rushed over. He knelt on the floot and held Kate’s hand, he was very comforting,” the insider said.

Faced with a crisis playing out live on TV and social media, some in the building believed that the show must go on.

“There were plenty of experienced on-screen talent already there who felt they could have taken over. They could have winged it.”

“All the News UK bigwigs were there. There was a panicked pow-wow. Some said ‘who can we get to fill in?’ but they decided against it.”

Instead the candidates were asked to stay in the studio and take questions informally from The Sun readers in the audience.

The insider added: “Today there is an inquest into why there wasn’t a Plan B to keep the debate on air. It’s a given for any serious broadcast channel”

The incident gave a brief boost to TalkTV’s struggling ratings. The channel has recorded zero viewers at low points in its schedules and Piers Morgan’s flagship show has even been beaten by rival GB News on occasions.

The screen message telling viewers TalkTV was off air was watched by one of the channel’s highest ever audiences.

Some 141,000 people tuned in, numbers comparable to Morgan’s opening week on Talk in April before his figures tumbled.

The debate peaked with 183,000 viewers tuning in shortly after its 6pm start. However Talk’s numbers dropped across the night with Morgan’s programme dropping to 14,000 viewers at its conclusion.

Despite the lure of the debate, Sky News, BBC News and GB News all recorded a greater audience than TalkTV across the whole of primetime, according to Barb data.

Insiders said this would disappoint NewsUK’s bosses who had hoped to relaunch TalkTV off the back of the debate, which was shared with sister title, The Sun

The podium “crash” even gave TalkTV what it has been seeking since it launched three months ago – highly-shareable viral content that creates a buzz on social media.

On this occasion though, that content, seized upon by media rivals including the BBC, was unintended.