Having already featured debates on Donald Trump and Lord Voldemort, it was perhaps inevitable that the UDS would turn to a more homegrown divisive figure. It was also perhaps inevitable, considering the recent trajectory of the UDS, that the debate would be less a sober analysis of Theresa May’s first few months in office in an attempt to compare them to a hypothetical tenure of similar length by a foreign secretary, and more like 50 minutes of what can be best described as argumentative comedy.
That said, however, it should be pointed out that the UDS did a fairly good job of assembling a panel that was representative of as many points of view as possible, with each side containing one member of the Conservative Society and one non-member, as well as one supporter of Brexit and one opponent. While this did result in a wide variety of views and perspectives was heard, the main advantage of the set up was the interplay caused between Ian Donnell, First speaker for the Opposition and Chair of the St Andrews Conservative and Unionist Society, and his opposite number in the proposition, STACU Treasurer Konstantin Velichkov.
The two of them confounded any hopes of this debate degenerating into a Conservative civil war by laughing louder than anyone else at one another’s jokes, exchanging sympathetic eye-rolls whenever the debate turned – as it inevitably did – to Tory-bashing, and generally giving off the impression of the bromance that our foreign secretary probably wishes he had been able to maintain with Micheal Gove.
This mutual respect dominated the first half of the debate, with both of them avoiding criticism of either Mr Johnson or Mrs May – indeed, both seemed to spend more time complimenting than insulting each other’s respective candidates. This was not to say, however, that either avoided verbal fireworks. Mr Velichkov, a seasoned veteran of UDS public debates, broke off midway through his speech to launch into a limerick regarding oral sex, Chancellor Merkel, President Erdogan of Turkey, and goats. In Latin. It is unclear whether he was trying to channel Mr Johnson with such flamboyance, but if that was the aim, then mission accomplished. Mr Donnell responded with an equally verbose display, which referred to “the shackles of Brussels tyranny”, and a Tory ship “With Britannia on our bow and the red ensign flying”, captained by Mrs May who “has the body of a weak and feeble Remainer, and the heart and stomach of a true Brexiter.”
It was only when Mr Velichkov’s partner Egon Persak started speaking, however, that the debate became truly surreal and not just because he claimed that Mr Johnson was “lower middle class.” Mr Persak based his case around the idea that Boris Johnson did not, in fact, exist as a human being, only as a concept that could, if he was made Prime Minister, act as a cushion for a Brexit-struck Britain. Further analysis of this point is impossible due to my lack of a philosophy PhD. A debate notable for the level of respect paid to Mr Johnson was closed by Sam Maybee, who provided enough anti-Boris invective for all for speakers, categorising claiming, “the only reason Johnson brought us out of the EU was to make himself Prime Minister, and he even managed to f**k that up.”
This was less a speech than a kamikaze mission aimed as much at his own partner as at Mr Johnson, with Maybee laying into Mr Donnell’s representation of the events that had put Mrs May in Downing Street all the way through his speech. While this (along with subtly undermining Mr Donnell by circulating an English translation of Mr Velichkov’s poem while Mr Donnell was speaking) was an unconventional debating strategy, it also proved to be a sound one, with side opposition winning by a comfortable margin.
Floor speeches, as ever, proved an important part of the debate, with the ceremonial bottle of port being won by James Bundy, who, with a lack of extravagance that made him almost unique in the debate, set out a nuanced and sincere defence of Mrs May. This was contrasted with an entertaining, though less intellectually rigorous speech given by Jason Gallant, who mocked both Mr Johnson’s weight and sexual proclivity, saying that the latter trait must be the only reason the Foreign Secretary burned any calories.
All in all, while there may be drawbacks to the less serious tone struck with recent debates, the UDS seems, like Mr Johnson, to have learned that there are benefits to ridiculousness.