There was no doubt that Sky News presenters and reporters promoted Rishi Sunak heavily before, during and after the last major debate of the Conservative Party leadership contest on Thursday, August 4, 2022.

All of them were talking about Rishi while downplaying or ignoring any mention of Liz Truss’s achievements at the Departments of the Treasury, Education, International Trade — or the Foreign Office.

It was all Rishi, Rishi, Rishi.

Sky claimed to have an audience of undecided Conservative Party members. I’ll address that claim below.

Prior to the debate, Sky presenters interviewed their colleagues, some of these undecided voters and two MPs, Dominic Raab on Team Rishi and Kwasi Kwarteng on Team Truss.

Raab, who looked rattled, kept interrupting Kwarteng on the subject of tax. Kwarteng politely asked him not to interrupt, especially as he had given Raab an opportunity to speak freely about his candidate.

Although Guido Fawkes’s tweet and video say this was after the debate, it was actually before the debate:

Sky’s clock says 19:18. The debate did not start until later:

Guido’s post says (red emphases his):

It seems Team Rishi forgot to send the ‘don’t shout over your opponent, it looks bad’ memo to their star backer…

Too right, but this was Sky and only Liz’s supporters probably took any notice.

Kay Burley, 61, was the moderator. The video of the coin toss determining who went first is here. Truss won the toss and said she would go first. Kay was all smiles at the end, so much so that she looked weird. Clearly, there was an opportunity for Sunak to shine later on.

During the debate, Burley asked questions after the audience of ‘undecideds’ had posed theirs.

Afterwards, the audience voted on their choice for the better candidate.

This is Truss’s Q&A session:

The Mail‘s Henry Deedes filed the following report (emphases in purple mine).

We had Truss’s use of the word ‘bold’:

Up first was Miss Truss, having won the coin toss. ‘It really is make or break,’ said Kay, doing the introductions. Cue Rocky soundtrack. Duff-duff-duff!

We heard from someone called Diana who worried about the Bank of England’s doom and gloom forecast yesterday that recession was inevitable. Liz insisted it wasn’t

‘We can change the outcome,’ she said. ‘Now is the time to be bold.’ That’s what voters want to hear! Diane beamed. This was Elgar to her ears. One ticked ballot paper in the box marked ‘Truss’.

Deedes noted how Truss’s demeanour has improved over the past few weeks:

Remarkable how much the Foreign Secretary has grown during this contest. She was fluent – no ums and ahs. The joints too have loosened up. She was able to shimmy around the stage as she answered questions. At her launch a month ago, she was stiffer than a store mannequin.

An audience member criticised Truss’s proposal on realigning public sector pay outside of London — one that she ditched within 24 hours — and said he was deeply offended, especially as it would have included nurses and teachers. The man asked Truss whether she would apologise. A second man, sitting in the front row, said that he could not understand why every mis-step had to have an apology tacked on to it. Truss stood by waiting for the two men to finish.

It was a spiky exchange:

Now we get to Sky’s claim of having undecided Conservative Party members in the audience.

Guido reported on the offended man who asked Truss to apologise. It turns out that he, Tom Harding, was chief of staff to former MP Anna Soubry, a hardline Remainer who lost the Party whip in 2019. She did not win re-election later that year.

Guido told his readers the next day about Harding and another person in the audience, Jill Andrew:

To say questions have been raised about Sky’s debate audience last night would be an understatement. Despite two polls this week giving Liz a 32-34 point lead over rival Rishi, the audience was incredibly hostile towards her, with Rishi coming out on top. Sky News has said the audience was made up of undecided members. Guido’s not sure they did their homework properly…

One very critical anti-Liz audience member has already been identified as Jill Andrew, a former CCHQ lawyer and party candidate who stood against Boris for his Henley seat in 2001. Hardly a typical member…

The jewel in Sky’s audience crowd, however, was undoubtedly Tom Harding, who went to town on Liz over her regional pay boards u-turn before almost starting a fight with a fellow audience member standing up for her. Harding, it transpires, is none other than Anna Soubry’s former chief of staff…

It turns out that Harding has form, having appeared in a BBC Question Time audience two months ago criticising Boris:

Astute viewers at home were not impressed:

Guido had a closer look at Sky’s claims of an audience of undecided Party members and concluded it was bunkum:

The Times had more on Truss’s economic policy on the day that the Bank of England raised interest rates:

Liz Truss said last night that recession in Britain was “not inevitable”, as she claimed her plan to cut taxes could prevent an economic downturn.

In the last televised debate of the Tory leadership campaign the foreign secretary cast doubt on the Bank of England’s predictions of a slump and defended her plans for a multibillion-pound stimulus for the economy …

… Truss claimed that she had the policies to build towards growth.

“What the Bank of England has said is extremely worrying, but it is not inevitable,” she said.

“We can change the outcome, and we can make it more likely that the economy grows.”

The Mail reported that Truss was eager to get civil servants off their Pelotons and back into the office:

Liz Truss last night pledged to get more civil servants back to the office after it emerged many Whitehall desks are still empty.

She backed Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg‘s efforts to curb the work from home culture in the civil service.

The Foreign Secretary, who has previously suggested flexible working should ‘become the norm’, made the vow as Cabinet Office figures showed that in the week commencing July 25, just over half of Whitehall desks were occupied.

The worst culprits were the Scotland Office on 27 per cent and Miss Truss’s own department on 34 per cent. Numbers are falling as the weeks go on.

Miss Truss said: ‘I support the work Jacob Rees-Mogg has been doing… and I will be looking at that very carefully.’

Truss must be careful about flip-flopping. It is careless and gives her opponents ammunition.

After Truss finished answering questions from the audience, Burley invited her to sit down opposite her for questions. I thought this was terribly rude:

You can have a drink of water. You’re welcome.

Burley asked Truss about violations of lockdown rules, hinting at Boris.

Truss, recalling Burley’s 2020-2021 suspension from Sky for her 60th birthday bash in London’s West End, gave a tactful response, yet one that Burley would have found hard to miss:

Many mistakes were made during lockdown, Kay, by many people.

Here’s the video. The reply has another Burley incident involving a fellow journalist outside a London courthouse several years ago:

Then it was Sunak’s turn to shine:

At this point in the polls, Rishi was far behind and every Conservative knew it.

The Mail‘s Henry Deedes noted:

On came Rishi. He seemed jittery. Hyper. A man in a hurry. Much like his whole campaign, he was playing catch-up.

Going second was clearly a massive disadvantage. Good on him though. He must know his bid by now is doomed. Yet still he ploughed on, smiling and joking, charming the audience with his polished public school manners. He reminded me of a dutiful airline steward aboard a plummeting plane, insisting all’s tickety-boo.

There was an early question as to whether he was going to withdraw from the leadership contest. Course he wasn’t. He’d given up a holiday in sunny Californ-I-A to do this. He wasn’t going to pack it in early. 

‘I’m sure we’ll get to talking about the economy in a minute,’ he said at one point. Translation: Please, please ask me about the economy.

Here’s the video of that exchange at 1:50 in. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get to talking about the economy, the best part:

Contrary to what Deedes wrote, going second was clearly a winning position for Sunak.

The Murdoch-owned Times gave much more coverage to him than to Truss. Recall that they came out immediately for Sunak as party leader, beginning with a hit on Truss:

In the last televised debate of the Tory leadership campaign the foreign secretary cast doubt on the Bank of England’s predictions of a slump and defended her plans for a multibillion-pound stimulus for the economy.

But she was attacked by Rishi Sunak, her rival, who said the Conservative Party needed to “get real and fast”.

He said: “The lights on the economy are flashing red and the root cause is inflation. I’m worried Liz Truss’s plans will make the situation worse.

“It’s not the tax burden which is causing the recession. That’s simply wrong”

“What I’m not going to do is embark on a borrowing spree worth tens of billions of pounds,” he said. “We need to be really careful about policies that will make it worse”

During the debate Sunak was confronted with polling suggesting that he was trailing Truss in the contest. But the former chancellor insisted that he would not concede. “I’m fighting for something I really believe in,” he said.

Sunak also gave a spirited defence of his decision to resign from Boris Johnson’s cabinet.

“Everyone remembers what was going on with Chris Pincher, that was a serious ethical question that the government was on the wrong side of again, and I couldn’t defend it,” he said, referring to the former deputy chief whip who has been accused of groping men.

“Maybe you’re OK to defend that, I wasn’t OK to defend it, 60 other members of the government were not OK to defend it because it was wrong.”

After Truss secured a number of high-profile endorsements in recent days, Sunak insisted that he was the most popular candidate with Tory MPs.

“Every single round of the parliamentary process, I led,” he said. “And since it finished, more and more people have come and joined the team.”

At the end of the programme, the audience was asked for a show of hands on who they thought would make a better prime minister, with Sunak emerging as the clear winner.

Sky were eager for everyone to pile on in support of Sunak.

After the debate, reporters and audience members gave their view.

Only one person, a manager in the social care sector, supported Truss. The reporter tried to change her mind. The woman felt awkward, shifting in her chair. She was unshakeable, however, and repeated that she thought Truss had a better solution for social care.

Journalists at The Telegraph gave their views on the debate.

Madeline Grant thought that Truss won, despite having to admit policy U-turns:

Liz Truss won. Both she and Kay Burley, the compere, had arrived in the same shade of red, like a pair of awkward accidentally-matching wedding guests. Liz’s outfit was offset with a Frodo Baggins ring around her neck – appropriate on a day when the Bank of England was predicting Mount Doom.

Rishi Sunak looked more like a Moss Bros dummy than ever, with his sharp suit and matinee idol quiff …

Faced, for the first time in ages, with real grassroots rage, Liz garbled in that weirdly jolty way of hers, hands outstretched like an angler lying about his catch …

Kay stirred the pot by presenting the Liz of 2022 with a quote from the Liz of 2019 about the necessity of building on the green belt. Liz squirmed again. “I’ve changed my view on that What I don’t want to do, Kay, is build on the green belt”

After a series of irritating one-on-one questions that told us more about the host than the interviewee, it was Rishi’s turn, and he did his best to shake off his reputation as the establishment candidate by listing all the Tory grandees who had lined up behind him.

Despite invoking Michael Howard and William Hague, he reprised his old Tony Blair impression, with lots of gesticulations and compliments to the audience. However, like his campaign, it was a patchy mix, half New Labour, half Ukip – his Blairite intonation, “I wanna deliver”, was matched with a Faragean dig at “Lefty lawyers”.

Kay began a question in Latin. “Et tu, Rishi?”, she snarled. The Wykehamist tried unconvincingly to pretend he didn’t know what this meant. In the end, it took a man from the audience shouting in plain English – “you stabbed Boris in the back!” – for the message to seep in … 

The audience poll pointed to a decisive win for Rishi, but he’ll need to land many more body blows if he is to win the ultimate toss of the Tory coin.

In another Telegraph article, Ross Clark and Tim Stanley gave their impressions of the candidates’ performance.

Ross Clark pointed out that Truss never recovered from having to defend her public sector pay policy reversal:

Truss was less wooden, less awkward than on some previous occasions. She showed a sense of humour. But, thanks to her rapidly-withdrawn policy of regional pay boards, she spent much of her 45 minutes on the back foot. Her most difficult moment was when a man from Newcastle [Tom Harding] said he had been ‘offended’ by the suggestion that his work in the North East was of less value than someone doing the same job in London.

Truss was also a little hampered when answering questions on Ukraine and Taiwan – she is the foreign secretary, and her answers really mattered.

… But she never explained why she had come up with her regional pay policy in the first place if she was going to drop it so quickly.

Truss came across as someone more prepared to answer questions directly. The more that Sunak’s 45 minutes went on, the more he came across as someone who was repeating prepared questions on autopilot – and the more you understood why support for him in this contest was draining away. But not was not, it appeared, how the studio audience saw it – a show of hands at the end suggested he had firmly won over the audience.

Tim Stanley said the audience won the debate, in a sense, but Truss’s weak spots mean the contest between her and Sunak is far from over:

The winner of the Sky debate was the audience. It was invited, said Kay Burley, to reflect the demographics of the Conservative party, so I was anticipating something like Cluedo: a vicar, a professor, a colonel and an inebriated peacock.

Instead we got some marvellous characters who, when the candidates failed to answer a question, argued with themselves instead. A debate broke out between Tom from Gateshead who found Liz’s regional pay policy insulting and a fellow in the front row who thought politicians should stop apologising.

“When someone’s asking for your vote, you don’t expect to be offended,” said Tom. If looks could kill! Who murdered the Tory Party? Tom from Gateshead, in the TV studio, with passive aggression.

On the subject of *that* policy, Liz, who was dressed as Miss Scarlett, refused to admit an error while also trying to make a virtue out of being willing to make a u-turn …

Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, tried to combine being a safe pair of hands with being a radical reformer. His vibe is “recklessly sensible”, and it won over this sceptical crowd. The polls, and the pundits, say Liz is the favourite, but given the alarming rise in inflation, and combined with the late arrival of ballots – I still think the election is up for grabs.

Guido reported a snap poll that Redfield & Wilton Strategies took after the debate:

A second poll in a row has found Liz to be more popular than Keir Starmer, widening her lead to three points. A Team Liz source joked to Guido that with Rishi we’ll get socialism for two years followed by socialism for another 5”

The poll shows that Labour’s Keir Starmer would beat Sunak 39% to 32%.

Truss holds a narrow lead over Starmer, 37% to 35%.

Readers interested in more policy detail from the candidates can read about it here, here and here.