THE polls are up and down in the Tory leadership race but on one prediction you can (probably) rely. Tonight at 9pm Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will be in Stoke-on-Trent for the latest live televised debate.

Presented by Sophie Raworth with political editor Chris Mason and economics editor Faisal Islam on hand to provide analysis, the BBC1 event takes place before an audience of 80-100 people.

With voting in the contest limited to a couple of hundred thousand party members, you might wonder why the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and other broadcasters are so keen to hand over primetime slots for what is an internal party process.

Conservative party members are television viewers too, of course. But it is more than that. There is an obvious UK-wide and global interest in the contest’s outcome. BBC1’s coverage, which will also include one to one interviews with Nick Robinson, is titled Our Next Prime Minister.

Moreover, the debates so far have made gripping viewing. Not quite Line of Duty electrifying, but headline-generating nonetheless.

Live televised debates have become such an accepted part of the democratic process it is impossible to see any candidate ever saying no to them, as Theresa May did in the 2017 General Election. She later admitted it had been a huge mistake.

The plug was almost pulled on the current batch of debates because they were proving too entertaining to viewers.

First out of the traps was Channel 4’s debate, in which the then five candidates were asked by host Krishnan Guru-Murphy if they thought Boris Johnson was honest. “Yes or no?” he demanded. To ask such a question about a sitting Prime Minister would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

Next, ITV News delivered what its political editor, Robert Peston, called one of the most gripping TV debates he had ever seen. It was thrilling television at times, with Rishi Sunak’s question to Liz Truss – “What do you regret most, being a Lib Dem or being a Remainer? – becoming the political equivalent of Mrs Merton’s famous inquiry to Debbie McGee.

The ITV debate was different in that candidates were allowed to question each other directly, a change to the format hailed by the BBC’s Chris Mason as a “nifty idea”. It is not the first time it has been done: STV started the trend a couple of elections ago, and it is a regular feature in American debates. Another Scottish innovation can be heard tonight when the BBC1 debate is simulcast on radio, just like BBC Scotland’s The Sunday Show.

The direct questions, and no audience to act as a buffer, gave the ITV debate a gladiatorial air. Several heavy blows were landed. While the audience at home liked it, Conservative MPs were horrified at the “blue on blue” fighting and the image it presented of the party in general.

The Herald:

Labour, of course, was delighted. At Boris Johnson’s last PMQs, leader Keir Starmer cheekily thanked him for giving his party so much material to use against the Tories in the next election.

After the ITV programme, teams Sunak and Truss withdrew from a Sky News debate, forcing the channel to cancel. Criticism of the candidates from rival parties as well as broadcasters led to a swift change of minds.

There was more to this than not wanting to look like Theresa May. With so much at stake, the broadcasters had been presenting the debates as essential to democracy no less. John Ryley, the head of Sky News, said there had never been a more important time to reinvigorate the trust of voters in the office of Prime Minister. What reasonable politician could say no to that?

With the candidates relenting the doors opened to more live debates. Tomorrow, at 6pm, TalkTV and the Sun have The Showdown: The Fight for No 10; while Sky finally gets its chance on August 4 at 8pm, with host Kay Burley.

The candidates have a lot to gain from taking part. To put it bluntly, Sunak has to show he can be trusted, politically and economically. Truss has to either disprove her “wooden” image, or show it does not matter in the bigger scheme of things. Make a virtue of her awkwardness while presenting Sunak as slick, ambitious, and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

Similarly, it could go horribly wrong for either candidate with a poor answer, a misjudged tone, a generally lacklustre performance, or any number of other hiccups (Sunak or Truss could, indeed, even have hiccups). Great for viewers and broadcasters, not so much for the candidates.

Will it be all right on the night tonight? Not long till we find out.