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Sunak on the Sun politics show: even cheeky questions can’t create a sense of fun | Zoe Williams

The Sun newspaper’s politics show, Never Mind the Ballots, leans heavily on the great soft-comedy moments of golden British TV men-talking, its name pilfered from the Buzzcocks, its graphics from Have I Got News for You.

This was a smart idea, because it looks fun, but it was also a dumb idea, because it was not fun. Even Rishi Sunak’s eyebrows flagged surprise, yet it was not surprising. Harry Cole kept promising that they were running out of time, yet time did not run out.

So far as anyone knows, the interview is still going. Sunak is probably still there beneath the studio lights, running through all the other people he’s on the side of, besides pensioners, renters, veterans. Young people, landlords, conscientious objectors.

Sun readers, en masse, seem to have got the memo that Sunak can get a bit tetchy, and a lot of the questions were cheeky and wrong-footing. What, you could hear the hive mind wonder, would make a thin-skinned man show his true colours?

“Why do you wear your trousers so short?” Rishi thinks they’re not that short. “When did you last go to a Wetherspoons?” He goes to his local in Northallerton. He didn’t name it but actually that didn’t matter because he goes there for breakfast with his family after a park run. It wasn’t fun enough to sound as if he might be lying. It didn’t even sound as fun as the time David Cameron pretended to have last had a Cornish pasty, so it must have been true.

There were, however, a number of firsts: Sunak’s answers on immigration were an absolute mess but there was nothing new about that. Trying to square the circle of being both pro-migration and anti-migration, he re-routed the issue through the prism of fairness: illegal immigrants were jumping the queue, and that went against the prime minister’s inalienable sense of fairness.

Later, however, he was absolutely determined to bring down legal numbers, even though by these lights they’re in the queue, but the queue is too large. No offence, dude, but “carry on queueing, regardless of the size of the queue” is the last remaining British value we all agree on – you might as well have set fire to a union jack on set. Now that would have been fun.

Sunak did, however, clarify his position on the ECHR: he doesn’t think the Rwanda plan is in breach of any international law but, should it be, he said: “I believe that border security and controlling illegal migration is more important than our membership of ECHR.”

Look, nobody panic; he can’t even get Rwanda past the Lords, so it’s unlikely he’d get leaving the ECHR past them, which in any event he couldn’t do without winning the next election, which not even he – eyebrows or no eyebrows – thinks he will, but it was nonetheless the first time he’d planned that out so plainly.

It was definitely the first time I’d heard Harry Cole say anything woke: “Are you really going to pass a law that’s going to fine homeless people for being smelly? It’s outrageous.”

Someone, somewhere, could have had fun with that, the Arthurian quest for Cole’s kernel of humanity finally realised in a person’s right to smell. Not Sunak, though, who droned on for a bit about how people had a right to walk around their communities without being intimidated, and not even Cole the Smell-Warrior had the va-va-voom to follow up on which smells counted as intimidating and which did not.

It was the first time love has been proffered as a justification for non-dom status, and the attendant question marks hanging over Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, most of which are more of a statement: wow, that’s a lot of money. “I can’t control who I fall in love with, right?” Sunak said. In the great dating game of life, the heart wants what it wants. If it wants shares in Infosys, what’s a guy supposed to do?

It was a novelty to see one man of the people pitted against another, in the Sun’s closing panel: a cabby, Grant Davis, named his number one transport issue: to deal with small boats, he suggested. “From me to you, Mr Prime Minister, why can’t you put the navy in the Channel?”

But he was answered, not by Sunak (this explains, if you did, why you were able to stay awake for it) but by Hugh Andree, the veteran and activist also on the panel.

“Same reason we couldn’t go from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland wearing uniforms and carrying weapons. Borders have two sides.”

“OK, you win,” said Davis’s face, if not his mouth.

It was the first time I’m aware of that there was broad acknowledgment, even if it was mainly tacit, that referendums are a bloody nightmare. Davis wanted a ref on net zero and Sunak was quite clear on this: “We don’t need a referendum because we’re going to have a general election.”

Yeah, on that: Sunak still won’t give a date, and his reason for stringing out his decision gets ever thinner. He’s focused on the things that matter, to ordinary people, who never ask him about the election, they only seem to ask him about the wonderful things he’s done to improve their lives.

But you know what they say about dating, Rish: you can’t do all the talking. Sometimes you have to ask them a question. Democracy has two sides.