Britain’s Next Prime Minister STV, 8PM ***

THESE ITV talent shows are getting out of hand. Last night viewers switched on to find that the format used to find dancing dogs and power balladeers was now being deployed to find the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. From Britain’s Got Talent to Britain’s Next Prime Minister: how had it come to this?

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt had clashed previously in the BBC’s five-candidate debate anchored by Emily Maitlis, but such was the general chaos of that evening it was hard to make out a word being said. A 2am fight outside a pub would have made more sense.

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So here we were, down to the final two in Salford. Nowhere to run, apart from the toilet during the ad break. Nowhere to hide on a set that looked like an Essex hairdressers circa 1983. How very ITV.

Time for opening statements. Someone had put too many sugars in Johnson’s tea. Gone was the Mogadon Boris of the BBC debate and in his place was one who punched the air, slapped the podium and rarely lowered his voice below a bellow. Had his pal Donald been on the blower giving coaching advice? If Johnson was not careful there would be the debate equivalent of spilling red wine on a pale sofa before the hour was up.

Hunt left it all of a nanosecond before reminding viewers he had been an entrepreneur. I’ll be your prime minister whoever you vote for he said, promising to bring together “our amazing UK”. Either a small earthquake was occurring somewhere in Scotland or Nicola Sturgeon was laughing her socks off.

Julie Etchingham was the moderator and what a fine job she did. A Cambridge graduate and former Newsround presenter, she had just the right combination of brains and ability to get through to small children - or in this case two fully grown adult politicians - that the evening required. “Gentlemen, please, I don’t want you talking over one another,” she scolded, later resorting to a sharp “Stop!” in the face of Johnson’s relentless burbling.

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Standing at their podiums, Johnson and the stiff necked Hunt looked like a ventriloquist’s act in which the dummy had come to life and declared its independence. His body swivelled as one between Johnson and Etchingham, and from the studio audience of 200 to the folks at home, in particular the 160,000 Conservative Party members with a vote. With the ballot papers having gone out last week, most will have voted already. This, then, was an exercise in supreme poinlessness, with the rest of us merely the equivalent of those resting actors who rush in to fill empty seats at the Oscars when the important people go out for a fag.

ITV had asked for questions from around the country, with the “winners” invited to the studio in Salford to ask them in person. Ah, Salford, home to the world famous lads club, outside which a young band by the name of The Smiths had been photographed. One doubted either man on the stage tonight had applied to be members of that establishment.

Back to the charming man, and Johnson. The wheels had come off the BBC’s debate when it turned out that the apparently ordinary folk were in fact deeply political sorts, so one assumes ITV went all out on background checks before unleashing the punters. Predictably there was lots on Brexit and naff all direct mention of Scotland. No change there then.

READ MORE: Hunt hopes for big win in Scotland

Hunt had said pre-debate that he had set out to turn a coronation into a contest, now he was going to turn a contest into an upset. He landed a blow on Johnson by asking if he would resign if there was no October 31 Brexit and answer came there none. But he did not know how to rattle Johnson, and indeed looked frequently discombobulated by him.

The second half of the debate focused on character. If there was ever a time to come out swinging at Johnson it was now, do or die. Johnson said he had a talent for getting surprising results in difficult circumstances. Was he talking about his dating history or time as London mayor?

Hunt brought up his telling off of Trump as evidence of his toughness and integrity and got a round of applause. Asked for his response, Johnson ducked and dived again. “Boris, just answer the question,” Hunt implored, to no avail.

By the end of the hour, what had we learned? That Mr Hunt was a decent enough chap but skins on rice puddings were safe while he was around, and that with a few bounds and a lot of bluster Bozzie Bear was free and romping towards Downing Street. Watch him go.