Five memorable moments from televised leadership debates

As Tory rivals prepare for TV debates, we look back at some amusing and cringeworthy moments

Empty podiums in advance of a televised leadership debate
(Image credit: ITV via Getty Images)

The Tory leadership hopefuls will face the cameras in the coming days as televised debates put them on the spot in front of audiences of millions.

The first debate will be broadcast at 7.30pm this evening on Channel 4. It will run for 90 minutes and anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy is hosting. The second will be shown at 7pm on Sunday on ITV and is set to run for an hour. The third and final TV debate is taking place on Tuesday evening. It will be shown by Sky News and streamed on YouTube, and will feature an hour-long live debate hosted by Kay Burley with questions from a virtual audience.

Televised debates can “catapult or crush reputations”, said the BBC. They can also throw up some amusing and cringeworthy moments. Here are five unforgettable examples.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

David Cameron’s ‘40-year-old black man’

A voter referred to as a “40-year-old black man” by David Cameron during the leaders’ debate before the 2010 general election criticised the Conservative leader for getting the details about him “wrong”, said Channel 4.

During the TV debate, Cameron told the audience of nine million viewers that Neal Forde, the man in question, had served in the Royal Navy for 30 years. The Tory leader added that Forde was “incredibly proud” of his country but “so ashamed” that “we’ve had this out-of-control [immigration] system with people abusing it so badly”.

But in an interview, Forde explained that he was actually 51 and only spent six years in the Navy. “Britain needs immigrants,” he added. “It’s a rich and diverse country with a heritage to be proud of, but what I find unacceptable is that the politicians seem to care more about everybody else and forget the British people.”

David Miliband’s dead hero

During the 2010 Labour leadership hustings, the candidates were asked by host Jeremy Paxman to name their most inspirational fellow party member from history.

David Miliband chose Tony Crosland, a “brave fighter for the things he believed in who was tragically robbed from us”. When Paxman replied that Crosland was “an intellectual who never became leader”, Miliband was quick to defend his hero. “No he died, Jeremy, he tragically died,” he responded, to much amusement.

Ed Miliband is ‘tough enuss’

Labour hopeful Ed Miliband found himself caught in what Metro described as an “awkward tongue twister” during the 2015 general election debate broadcast on Channel 4 and Sky.

When grilled by Jeremy Paxman over whether he had what it took to be the leader of the UK, Miliband responded that he had been bold enough to “stand up” to former President Barack Obama in the summer of 2013 over military action in Syria.

“I think standing up to the leader of the free world shows a certain toughness,” he said, later telling Paxman: “Am I tough enough? Hell yes I'm tough enough.”

However, unfortunately for Miliband, he stumbled on the pronunciation of the first “enough”, making it sound a bit like “enuss” – a moment that was swiftly “memeified” and made him look “very much not tough enuss at all”, said Metro.

Boris Johnson and the ice sculpture

The Conservative Party took Channel 4 to Ofcom after the broadcaster put an ice sculpture in place of Boris Johnson during a climate debate in the run-up to the 2019 general election, reported The Guardian.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and the heads of the UK’s other main parties all turned up but Johnson refused. The situation became more farcical when Johnson sent his father, Stanley, and Michael Gove to try to stand in for him during the broadcast. They were refused entry to the debate, which was intended only for leaders.

Rory Stewart’s ‘man-spreading’

Having been accused by Indy100 of “man-spreading” when being interviewed by Laura Kuenssberg for BBC News a week earlier, Rory Stewart faced the same criticism on Twitter during a Conservative leadership debate in 2019.

See more

As his fellow Tory hopefuls sat back in their stools with their feet on the bar, Stewart lent forward with his feet wide apart on the floor, prompting plenty of discussion on social media.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.