Theresa May or may not

May 31, 2017

by Martin Odoni

It may take courage to become Prime Minister, but it also takes courage to do the things that will keep you there. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, today had a change-of-heart – I think correctly – over his previous decision not to take part in tonight’s televised leadership debate. Having announced his involvement, he then invited Theresa May to join the debate too. Did anyone fail to predict what May’s response would be?

May will run and hide. She will let the other leaders do all the talking.

The Conservative Party campaign has been so risk-averse so far that it is quite impossible to call it anything better than cowardly. One almost wonders whether May would refuse to do interviews if they require a prior journey across a road, for fear of being run over. The ludicrous upshot of the safest-options-at-all-times approach, designed to hold onto the lead the Tories had at the start of the campaign and nothing more, is that it runs completely contrary to its own message. May has interminably bored the nation to tears with claims to being a “Strong & Stable” leader, and a Corbyn premiership being the doorway to a “Coalition of chaos“. She claims only she has the authority to negotiate effectively with continental leaders as Britain negotiates its withdrawal from the European Union.

But more and more, it is becoming impossible to miss the absurd disconnect between May’s mechanical words and her insulating actions. If she is strong and Corbyn is chaotic, why will she not debate him? If she is so strong, she will surely be able to outwit and outbattle a chaotic weakling at the despatch box? If she is so stable, how come she and her fellow Tories have made most of the real ‘car-crash’ mistakes over the last five weeks? If she is so stable, why does she keep making policy U-turns, including on Manifesto pledges before the General Election has even arrived?

From all this, the follow-up question is inevitable; if a leader is not willing to debate a mere six other Britons, how can she be ‘Strong & Stable’ enough to be trusted with the task of negotiating with the leaders of twenty-seven other countries? If courage is truly the strength it is generally held to be, why is it conspicuously absent from the deeds of a leader who is supposed to be ‘strong-and-stable’?

May’s excuse for not taking part is that she believes a politician’s job during an Election campaign is not to stand on stage and argue with other politicians. Instead, she claims, it is to get out and meet people, knocking on doors and engaging in doorstep conversations. There are at least four reasons why this is a flat-out and very obvious lie; –

Firstly, the Tory campaign has been repeatedly and rightly mocked very widely for its persistent over-orchestration, which has actually been even worse than it was under David Cameron in 2015. The attempts to keep random members of the public and ‘non-approved’ journalists from getting near to May have extended as far as locking some members of the press in another room while the Prime Minister talked to pre-vetted people (an action I am not even sure was legal; what if there had been a fire?).

Secondly, no one is suggesting May should do the televised debate instead of door-knocking. While they cannot both be done simultaneously, in a five-week campaign, there should be no difficulty setting aside time separately for each activity. It is hardly as if the televised debate is going to last the full remaining week of campaign-time (I am heroically resisting the temptation to add that it often seems like a week listening to May speaking for an hour… oops, looks like I said it anyway).

Thirdly, most of the questions in the televised debates are asked by members of the public. Does it really make that much difference if they are asked in a television studio and not on a doorstep?

Fourthly, I would be more than a little surprised, after the debate closes, were I to learn that May had spent that whole of that time talking to voters on the doorstep, and not perched on a settee, watching other leaders ‘squabbling’ on TV. But for her excuse to have any traction, door-knocking while the debate is going on is precisely what she would have to get out and do.

In short, Theresa May is terrified that she will lose in a public debate with Jeremy Corbyn.

May may JC will

May’s cowardice is not only a bad move strategically, given the dismal recent polling news for her party, who clearly could do with something positive to happen for them to stop the rot. It is also bad on democratic principle. Not only because it adds both accountability and knowledge of a candidate to the democratic process. The modern British public are often accused of being ‘apathetic‘ to and ‘disengaged’ from politics. Probably true, and it is spoken of as an indictment of the public. I, however, see it more as an indictment of modern politicians, and May’s behaviour would demonstrate one of those failings. She is Prime Minister of (what just barely passes for) a democratic country, a country where the politicians serve and are answerable to the people. Yet May has demonstrated throughout this campaign that she will not answer to them.

This shows why the criticism of the British public as ‘apathetic’ is not altogether fair. After all, how can the public possibly be expected to engage with democratic politics, when the most powerful democratic politician in the country will not engage with the public?

I doubt Theresa May, a woman of absolutely no principles, cares one jot about the moral duty. My hope therefore is that next week she is punished for her strategic foolishness instead.

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