Thoughts on the leadership ‘debate’

May 30, 2017

by Martin Odoni

Well, the televised leadership “debate“, or at least the nearest equivalent that Theresa May had sufficient courage to submit to, on Channel 4 is over. Both she and the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, answered questions from the audience, moderated by Faisal Islam, and then faced a grilling from the nation’s most brutal interrogator, Jeremy Paxman.

Corbyn took first turn, and was very relaxed and accomplished during the audience Q & A. It was a fair bit tougher for him during the Paxman interview, predictably enough, and I did notice Corbyn getting a little evasive, especially on the matter of nuclear weapons. However, no matter how nastily Paxman asked the questions, there did seem to be a certain futility about a lot of them. Questions about the Falklands War, for instance, or the diplomatic nicety of addressing delegates from Hamas as, “my friends”, seemed very in-keeping with the rather woolly-minded obsession in the mainstream media at the moment with things Corbyn said in the 1980’s. I hate to draw attention to this point, media people, but the 1980’s have very definitely not stretched all the way to the year 2017, and many issues of the time are long settled. Yes, they include the Falklands War. And the Irish Republican Army for that matter. Fussing about the politics of the 1980’s during the 2017 General Election would be a little like fussing about the politics of the Wall Street Crash during the Presidential Debates between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Equally, the very hypothetical, in fact specualtive, scenario Paxman put to Corbyn about “twenty minutes to order a drone-strike on someone planning a bombing” seemed ludicrously over-dramatic and specific. It seems a very James Bond film suggestion, and would probably never work in such a way in practice. If it was a question of national security being safe or otherwise in Corbyn’s hands, it seems very uneven that Paxman did not ask May, just for instance, why she let MI5 work with the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group in 2011 – the group with whom the Manchester Arena Bomber may have been working.

Overall, Corbyn came across positively. He kept his cool reasonably well, and seemed both affable and fairly sincere, and will have taken no political damage from the questioning at all. (Even opponents of Corbyn such as Alastair Campbell and Nigel Farage have admitted as such.)

As for May, her performance was not as awful as some are suggesting on social media, but it was still unambiguously weaker than Corbyn’s. She did okay during the audience Q & A, although she was needlessly evasive with the first couple of questions, while her repetitive use all the way through of the phrase, “Strong economy” showed that she is still completely incapable of speaking publicly without retreating into reflexive, robotic soundbites. She is the epitome of the over-trained politician. Thankfully, she never once said, “Strong and stable”, presumably because she realised that she would turn most of the audience against her the instant she did so. But all that has changed is the pet soundbite, and the new one is only half-different from the old one.

May’s subsequent performance against Paxman left a lot to be desired, at least early on. She was stammering and changing tack halfway through sentences quite frequently, and she committed one particularly silly gaffe that she was lucky Paxman did not pick up on, when he asked her if she accepted responsibility for her mistakes, and she said,

“I take responsibility for the decisions I make.”

The unwanted implication of giving this as an answer to that particular question is that May’s decisions are all mistakes. Had Paxman been really on the top of his game, I am sure he would have pursued that.

May also came across as rather silly when trying not to admit that she had changed her mind on leaving the European Union – she was originally opposed but is now in favour – by denying that she thinks it is a duff idea. If she really wants people to believe she is a ‘strong and stable’ leader (YAWN!), then she needs to stop flip-flopping while pretending to be consistent. From the list of very swift U-turns Paxman rightly presented her with, it is quite correct that he called her “a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.” This description got probably the loudest ovation of the night from the audience, and that will be of concern at Tory Party HQ.

Theresa May blowhard

The Prime Minister, described by Jeremy Paxman as “a blowhard who collapses at the first sound of gunfire.”

May did finish fairly solidly though, although it was clear she was getting help from a jingoistic minority in the audience who were whooping and cheering any sign in her rhetoric of a two-fingered salute to the EU. It is very saddening to find that there are still large numbers of people in this country who are so easily impressed by such yobbish theatrics. But impressed they are, and their vocal support seemed to lift May enough to get her through to the close.

So, in all, another clear win for Corbyn, and he continues to hold the impetus and the initiative in the election campaign. Whether this leads to another boost in the polls for Labour, we shall have to wait and see. On the flip-side, May’s performance was shaky, but it was certainly not another disaster for the Tories, who may well be sighing with relief just at that small mercy. (Especially after the comical double-disaster for Michael Fallon over the weekend.) But even so, May still came off worse on the night. The ‘debate’ was not an outright fiasco for once in this abysmal excuse for a Tory election campaign. But even a less decisive loss is still another loss, and so there is hardly reason for the Conservative Party to break out the bubbly just yet.

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