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Pugnacious Farage lands blows that leave rivals reeling in BBC election debate

In Europe
June 08, 2024

They say you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, and that adage should now include never picking a fight with someone who has their own TV show.

Nigel Farage, unleashed into a live debate for the first time this election, was polished, pugnacious and popular.

Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the Commons, made a decent fist of trying to keep up with him, but hamstrung by the reality of 14 years in Government, she was elbowed into second place by the charismatic Reform UK leader.

A live Telegraph online poll of who was up and who was down put Mr Farage far ahead throughout the 90-minute BBC show, with a net positivity rating more than twice as large as Ms Mordaunt’s.

The big loser on the night was Angela Rayner. Sent out with a mission to be the sensible voice in the room, she struggled to think on her feet, was skewered over her views on the nuclear deterrent and repeatedly retreated to her safe ground of “the Tories crashed the economy”.

Accusations fly between Angela Rayner, left, and Penny Mordaunt during the debate

Accusations fly between Angela Rayner, left, and Penny Mordaunt during the debate – Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Mr Farage looked by far the most comfortable of the seven politicians on the platform. Having spent three years presenting his own show on GB News, he has rehearsed his lines to the point where he could recite them in his sleep, and having survived everything that was thrown at him on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! it was no surprise that he emerged as king of this particular jungle.

By the end of the night, where others were shaking their heads and knitting their brows, Mr Farage was enjoying himself so much that he was smirking like a naughty schoolboy as he made single-word heckles to his opponents’ earnest speeches.

Mr Farage’s trick is that he does not sound like a politician. On the subject of knife crime, Ms Mordaunt earnestly said: “We need more police and we need police in communities that can follow up with people.” The audience was silent.

When Mr Farage had his turn, he spoke directly to the audience, who applauded as he told them: “You can go shoplifting now, any of you. You can go shoplifting and nick £200 worth and you won’t be prosecuted. We are seeing a societal decline of law and order in this country.”

Ms Mordaunt came into the debate in the worst possible circumstances after Rishi Sunak had had to apologise for leaving D-Day commemorations early.

Her job was to try to get the debate back on to tax, and repeat the claim that Labour would increase taxes by £2,000 per household, and she gamely tried to do so, saying tax cuts were “in our DNA as Conservatives”, but Mr Farage was ready for her.

He accused the Tories of “dishonesty on a breathtaking scale” over tax, saying: “Even during Tony Blair’s time the top rate of tax was 40p in this country, and it was paid by one million people in this country. By 2029, eight million people will be paying the 40p rate of tax … That’s why life is so tough.”

Ms Mordaunt is now odds on with several bookies to lose her Portsmouth North seat, and she had an awful lot more defending to do than in her 85-day stint as defence secretary.

Mr Farage set the tone from the off: after Ms Rayner and Daisy Cooper, the LibDem deputy leader, answered a question on defence by tamely trotting out their policies, Mr Farage used it to go on the attack.

Rishi Sunak had “deserted” veterans by coming home early from Normandy, he said, “which is a complete and utter disgrace which shows we have an unpatriotic Prime Minister. It was appalling”.

With a further rhetorical flourish, Mr Farage added: “If his instinct was the same as the British people he would never have contemplated for a moment not being there for the big international ceremony. It shows how disconnected he is from the people of this country.”

Sporting a gravity-defying blow dry, Ms Mordaunt said it was “completely wrong” for Mr Sunak to leave France early and turned on Ms Rayner, standing next to her, rather than risking a counter-attack on the Reform UK leader.

To begin with, she did a good job of standing her ground. She reminded Ms Rayner she had “voted recently, along with the guy who wants to be foreign secretary and half of the Labour frontbench” to get rid of the nuclear deterrent.

“Imagine what Putin is thinking. Without credibility, we become a target. If we become a target you are less safe. It’s too late for this generation of Labour politicians, that credibility is shot. Do not vote these people in.”

Unsheathing her sword of truth to jab at her opponent, she said: “If your foe does not believe that you will use these weapons, the deterrent is gone and that’s the position you’re in. It’s serious stuff. This is what will happen if you elect these people.”

But Ms Mordaunt struggled badly on the question of immigration. Where Mr Farage mocked the others for their policies of “Open doors! Everyone come! Benefits for everybody!” Ms Mordaunt wandered off topic and had to be reminded of the question by moderator Mishal Husain.

She can now concentrate on defending her seat, while Mr Farage will be off to Clacton to focus on his own long-running battle to win a seat in Parliament.

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