Who won the BBC Question Time election special? Our writers have their say

Leader's Question TimeJohn Swinney, Rishi Sunak, Sir Keir Starmer and Ed Davey were grilled by Fiona Bruce and the Question Time audience
John Swinney, Rishi Sunak, Sir Keir Starmer and Ed Davey were grilled by Fiona Bruce and the Question Time audience

The BBC Question Time debate was unique in giving the main leaders a lengthy period to answer questions – half an hour each to be exact.

This allowed the audience not just to ask, but interrogate. Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was pressed on funding his vast spending commitments.

John Swinney, leader of the SNP, was scrutinised on his continued determination to deliver independence for Scotland.

Keir Starmer, Labour leader, was asked about the potential for tax rises, while Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, faced a range of difficult questions from election betting to national service.

Each leader attempted to stand their ground and deliver their core message. Here, two of our columnists react on who they believe did better – and worse.

It’s never nice watching someone struggle. While some take a positive pleasure from watching a leader badly out of their depth flounder in a horribly mismanaged campaign, I just feel bad for them. And so it was with a distinct sense of relief that I turned off the England game, and started preparing for the Question Time special.

First up was Ed Davey, for once on dry land. Question one: aren’t you going to bankrupt the country? It was a hostile start and an unconvincing answer. The fundamental problem for Ed was that his political strategy is to be a decent chap hoovering up protest votes, and this makes policy a tricky subject for discussion. Far better to fall off a paddleboard instead.

The audience, however, wanted to know about his record. Hadn’t he enabled austerity? Davey conceded he was “not proud” of some of the things the Liberal Democrats did the last time they were actually relevant, and by the time he’d answered (or failed to answer) questions about potential coalitions, whether he could be prime minister, tuition fees, and the post office, his limits were becoming painfully clear.

Swinney didn’t fare any better. Once he had finished his carefully phrased answer on the SNP’s scandals, the audience began turning the screws. Question two: are you simply going to carry on holding referendums until you get the answer you want?

His position appeared to be something like this: if the SNP gets a majority of Scottish seats in the election, that’s a green light for a referendum. And if they don’t, it’s a green light for a referendum. Indeed, every problem appeared to be seen through this prism. How would Swinney help manufacturing? By Scotland rejoining the EU. After independence.

In fairness, it’s not as if the SNP’s domestic performance is anything to write home about. Asked how he’d boost the Scottish NHS, Swinney proceeded to blame a crisis caused by austerity. But the Scottish health service is now spending 10 per cent more than it was before the pandemic while producing left. At some point, accountability is needed.

Then again, that’s never been the SNP’s strong point. Whenever something goes wrong, it’s England, Brexit or the Tories to blame. That’s not to say the audience was unmoved: the loudest applause of the evening so far came when Swinney called the Conservative government a “calamity”. Well then.

This edition of Question Time was the first when a celebrity on the panel might have helped: why not top it off with 30 minutes of Russell Brand?

Absent a good laugh – where was Nigel Farage? – come Keir Starmer’s appearance at the halfway mark, the audience at home had probably turned off, while the atmosphere in the studio was somnambulistic. We’ve heard these Labour lines before; the answers, there come none.

Why did he say Jeremy Corbyn was “great”? Keir repeated that he didn’t think he’d win an election. Why punish private schools? He likes schools. When will waiting lists come down? My mum was a nurse. The only illuminating bit was a lecture on why socialism in the energy sector wouldn’t work, which highlights his dubious conversion from Corbynism.

The reason why the Corbyn question matters is because Starmer won’t say if he’s changed his policies because he now sees Corbyn was wrong - or because he doesn’t want to lose like his predecessor did.

In short, if he thought he could get away with it, would Sir Keir go full communism? We shall just have to find out.

As for Rishi Sunak, his hands were lively but his face dead. Why is he doing this? I’m surprised he hasn’t left for California already. Interrogated, he seemed to switch off and power down – turning back on to issue the standard corporate apology for a service that has not met one’s expectations. Why does he want to conscript kids into volunteering? Because he met a boy who worked for St John’s Ambulance and enjoyed it. Bravo. That’s an argument for promoting St John’s Ambulance, not his bizarre national service plan.

The curious thing is why either man has agreed to these debates. Starmer’s strategy is to say nothing, so why not spend the election on a yacht in the Mediterranean, issuing the occasional press release? Sunak believes that he has the intellectual edge because that’s what the man in his bathroom mirror shouts back at him every morning – but the more we see of the Tories, the more it reminds us why they are set to lose.