Party leaders’ debate finds May, Corbyn and Natalie missing

The voice of the presenter left no doubt that this was Very Serious Television.

“With the future of Britain at stake for generations to come . . . ” he intoned, “tonight party leaders go head to head, fighting for your support!”

Yet the atmosphere at the leaders’ debate on Thursday night on ITV felt consistently forced because, after the sonorous build-up, the cameras lit neither on Theresa May, UK politics’ dominant figure, nor Jeremy Corbyn.

Instead, we were invited to believe that the fate of the nation hung on the debating prowess of figures such as the Greens’ Caroline Lucas and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood.

It felt as if, having been promised a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a high-stakes boardroom battle, one were instead watching a school investment club’s debate on what should be done with the company.

That did not, of course, mean that the serious, well-intentioned members of the club were short of innovative ideas for the company’s future.

Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats want the company to make peace with the foreign investors with which the management have fallen out.

Paul Nuttall’s UK Independence party wants to be sure it does the exact opposite.

Ms Wood’s Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, represented by Nicola Sturgeon, want to varying degrees to demerge parts of the enterprise altogether.

Ms Lucas thinks the environmental impact statement is more important than the profit-and-loss account.

There was, nevertheless, an uncomfortable sense that, because both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn had declined to attend, those who had turned up simply didn’t disagree with each other enough. The remaining “leaders” were instead left in an unseemly competition to see who could look and sound most virtuous.

That did not mean there were no good moments. Ms Lucas delivered one of the night’s best lines on Labour’s decision to support the vote to start leaving the EU, for example. “Labour didn’t just give the Tories a blank cheque for Brexit,” she said. “They gave them a lift to the bank and helped them cash it in.”

Yet, with the parties contesting the debate polling a cumulative 14 per cent in national opinion polls, there was a forced feeling to the leaders’ passion that came close to being cringeworthy. Mr Farron, in particular, had an unnerving habit of staring into the lens of the television camera to address the viewers and pointing his raised hand at them.

“That’s why YOU should have the final say on a Brexit deal, NOT the politicians,” he said at the end of one — or in fact nearly all — such perorations. The impression was of a TV salesman. “That’s why Acme Insurance company’s products could be right for YOUR family” might have suited the tone better.

Ms Lucas, meanwhile, had the concerned-but-nice air of a socially committed Anglican clergywoman. It was perhaps telling that she seemed most animated when recalling the time that a teacher at school had devoted an entire lesson to a really wonderful poem she had very much enjoyed.

Ms Sturgeon, meanwhile, agreed vigorously with many of the points made by the other leaders but also, refreshingly, had to defend the record of the government that she oversees in Scotland. It was at these points that she seemed least comfortable.

“We’ve got a challenge on education in Scotland,” she admitted when addressing one of the subjects on which her government has most often been criticised.

Yet, with neither Mrs May nor Mr Corbyn present, the one unifying point for all the other leaders was to disagree vigorously with Ukip’s Mr Nuttall, whom Ms Sturgeon waspishly described as Mrs May’s “spokesman”.

It is the kind of role in which Nigel Farage, Ukip’s former leader, might have revelled.

Instead, it seemed to fluster Mr Nuttall. In the most memorable moments of a largely forgettable evening, Mr Nuttall was sufficiently thrown off his stride that he first twice addressed an unamused Leanne Wood as “Natalie”.

He then, unbelievably, repeated the mistake shortly afterwards by calling Caroline Lucas “Natalie” too.

“Honestly, women’s names . . . ” scolded Ms Wood.

These moments may not bother Mr Nuttall excessively, though. Given his past record of remembering events in the most glamorous manner possible, he may subsequently remember the night as a great triumph. Who knows? In his memory, maybe he will have bettered the prime minister herself.

“What was her name again?” he will ask as he recalls the evening. “Natalie May?”