5 things we learned from the first TV debate of the 2017 general election


There was drama tonight in the first TV debate of the general election – and Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn weren’t even there.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, Ukip’s Paul Nuttall, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and Green co-leader Caroline Lucas were left to slug it out in the two-hour ITV debate.

We didn’t find out much about new policy.

But we did get a fascinating insight – for political geeks, anyway – into how these leaders act when the big boys aren’t around.

Here are the five things our reporter learned from sitting backstage at tonight’s debate.

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1. Theresa May was the elephant not in the room

The Mirror Chicken looked for Theresa May, but she was nowhere to be found

The chicken Tory leader was blasted in her absence tonight over her “weak and unstable” leadership.

Conservative Mrs May refused to take part in the debate, leaving five opposition leaders to argue it out in her absence – but she certainly came up.

And the placard-wielding Mirror Chicken was there to highlight the flapping Tory leader for avoiding a head to head with Jeremy Corbyn, who boycotted the event because she didn’t turn up.

Several of the politicians on stage said Mrs May was there – in the form of UKIP leader Paul Nuttall.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon blasted Mr Nuttall during one fiery exchange, labelling him as Mrs May’s “spokesman”.

Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood added: “I have message for the Prime Minister, who I am sure is watching tonight.

“You maybe too scared to come her tonight, for your U-turns to be highlighted, for your cruel policies to be exposed. You want this election to only be about Brexit because that means you avoid talking about the real issues like the NHS, the economy and the cuts you have made to our public services.

“That’s weak leadership – weak and unstable. Real leadership means being willing to defend what you stand for, not hide from it.”

And attacking Jeremy Hunt, Green leader Caroline Lucas said: “Just because you wear a badge on your suit, that doesn’t make you an advocate for the NHS.”

2. Paul Nuttall REALLY wanted to talk to Natalie

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Ukip leader Paul Nuttall made two embarrassing gaffes live on air when he kept getting his female rivals’ names wrong in a TV debate.

He referred to Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood ‘Natalie’ during the cringeworthy blunder on ITV’s Leaders’ Debate – and then called Green leader Caroline Lucas the same wrong name.

“I’m not Natalie, I’m Leanne,” Ms Wood shot back, prompting laughter in the media spin room backstage.

It’s possible he was confusing the women for Natalie Bennett – the Green Party leader two years ago.

Or the 1930s actress Natalie Wood, perhaps?

Speaking to the Mirror afterwards, UKIP MEP Jonathan Arnott insisted Mr Nuttall’s ‘Natalie’ gaffes were a “slip of the tongue”.

Asked if it was a secret lover, Mr Arnott said: “I suspect the truth may be a little more dry than that”.

As several hacks backstage remarked: “I think Natalie won tonight”.

3. Tim Farron couldn’t stop talking about himself

Tim Farron elicited a cheer in the press room for his anecdotes

It was like pantomime in the spin room.

Tim Farron just couldn’t stop making anecdotes about himself.

He brought up his childhood in Preston in the 1980s, seeing “what happens when decent people are taken for granted by a heartless Conservative government.”

He brought up his mum, who died on a hospital ward just two floors from where she gave birth to him decades earlier.

He brought up his four children – again and again and again.

It was like bingo. After a while, there were cheers backstage every time he did it.

All the while he was looking down the lens of the camera, bypassing the studio audience and speaking directly to viewers at home instead.

4. Everyone ganged up on UKIP

Paul Nuttall was not a popular man

If the debate was a pantomime, Paul Nuttall was the villain.

The four left-leaning party leaders slammed the UKIP leader for saying working-class areas should get more grammar schools, and blaming immigrants for the lack of housing and NHS crisis.

He tore into Lib Dem Tim Farron for saying Britain didn’t vote to leave the single market.

“Tim can cry about it all he wants. That’s just the fact. That’s democracy Tim,” he said.

But Mr Farron blasted him in return for wanting to cut the foreign aid budget to fund the NHS.

“Paul is talking about taking money from the poorest people on Planet Earth to fund his proposals. That stinks,” he said.

He said he’d create an “EU dividend” from money coming back from Brussels.

This was too good for his rivals to resist.

Leanne Wood cried: “£350million a week!”

Nicola Sturgeon added: “The bus is going to come driving past any minute!”

MEP Jonathan Arnott said his leader held his own against “four leaders who all share a very similar worldview”.

“When you’ve got that one against four you’ve got to be very robust, you’ve got to stand your ground,” he said.

5. Brexit was the big issue – but 80% of the panel backed Remain

Spot the odd one out?

Some 52% of the country backed Leave.

But Mr Nuttall was the only original Brexit-backer on the panel, and boy did he know it.

“You’ve heard it from the mouths of the other party leaders, or the ones who bothered to turn up, that they simply don’t believe in Brexit,” he said.

“Together we really can put the Great back into Britain.”

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