Leaders debate: How they did, and how Theresa May did not

June 1, 2017

by Martin Odoni

The televised leaders debate last night was too chaotic and cluttered again, and it often got to the point that the opposing participants were talking over each other so much that no one could be heard. I was originally in favour of enlarging these debates to include more parties, but I am starting to wonder whether it makes the process a little pointless. All the candidates to a greater or lesser extent were repeatedly guilty of speaking out-of-turn, interrupting, and not respecting the others’ space to speak. If candidates will not follow the rules and let others finish speaking, there will have to be a reassessment of the format for these events in future. One option the producers could try is to shut down all the microphones bar the one of the candidate whose turn it is to speak.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on the performances; –

Paul Nuttall – – – The UKIP leader continues to say stupid things, even repeating stupid things he said at the ITV debate, without apparently realising they were stupid. Someone needs to sit him down and explain to him that the Australian Immigration System will not reduce the number of incomers, as the points system lets in more per head of population than Britain’s current set-up. Also, does Nuttall really not recognise the absurdity inherent in saying, “[Donald Trump] is the leader of the free world whether we like it or not”? If Trump leads a ‘free world’ – of which Nuttall presumably imagines Britain is a part – how can we not have a say in who the leader is? Nuttall also did himself no favours at all with an inaccurate cheap shot at Corbyn about Hamas.

Caroline Lucas – – – The joint-leader of the Green Party spoke well again, sounding a lot more positive than most of the others, and she avoided making any silly remarks. I am just starting to wonder whether there is any point in her being there though, as most of what she says echoes the Labour and Liberal Democrat positions very closely, and as Green is the smallest party, it would have to be the one that gives way to reduce the numbers and confusion on-stage.

Tim Farron – – – The LibDem leader was probably the top performer on the night again. He did well in both large debates, although it has to be conceded that, as no one else was targeting him at all, he was a lot freer to go on the attack than some others were. His ‘Bake-off’ line at the end to take a swipe at Theresa May was very funny.

Angus Robertson – – – The deputy leader of the Scottish National Party started somewhat poorly, sounding like his every word was read off a teleprompter. But once he got past the early nerves, he improved dramatically and began to speak far more assertively and effectively. Unlike Nicola Sturgeon on the ITV debate a couple of weeks ago, Robertson remembered at all times that he was speaking to the whole of the UK and not just to Scotland, which meant he was a lot less prone to the appearance – fair or otherwise – of drifting into irrelevance.

Jeremy Corbyn – – – The Labour leader did reasonably well, given he was, as one might expect, targeted by the others an awful lot. He seemed to struggle at certain points, especially on the subject of the renewal of Trident, due to being constantly interrupted, especially by Robertson. But Corbyn can hardly really complain about that as he did his share of interrupting too. I doubt this performance in itself will have gained him significant ground on May in the polls, although he may gain a point automatically by virtue of simply being the one who had the guts to show up.

Leanne Wood – – – This seemed like an uncharacteristically tetchy performance from the leader of Plaid Cymru, sometimes bordering on rude. Maybe she was still feeling irked at Nuttall for repeatedly getting her name wrong during the ITV debate. Wood’s performance was not bad as such, but you get the feeling that her normally-cooler head was needed at times, and it just never quite seemed to be there. As a result, she was as prone to interrupting and speaking out-of-turn as anyone, and one or two of her answers sounded somewhat ratty. Unlikely to have won too many fresh admirers on this occasion.

Amber Rudd – – – It was quite wrong that the Conservative leader was not there, of course, but I will come to that later. Looking at Rudd’s performance, she cannot be faulted on her speaking voice, which is certainly stronger and less monotonous than ‘Blowhard-the-U-Turn-Queen’s’. But the content of what Rudd said was shaky, and she did drop a couple of real clangers during the discussion. Her most disturbing transgression was dressing up Britain’s amoral sales of weapons and aircraft to the House of al-Saud as somehow ‘defending Britain’. Meanwhile, her near-obsessive pursuit of Jeremy Corbyn throughout the debate turned some of her answers into non-sequiturs, as she tried to twist every question into an attack on Labour. Rudd’s insistence on soundbiting repetitively about a ‘Magic Money Tree’ (highlighting the economic illiteracy of her own party) probably did the Tories no favours, and she came across as a little down-the-nose and obstreperous throughout. Allowing for the fact that her father had passed away at the start of the week however (that she was sent to the debate as the Tories’ ‘sacrificial lamb’ only underlines how frighteningly lacking Theresa May is in human feeling), Rudd held it together quite well. She was a bit blundery, and used some very odd metaphors – someone needs to explain to her the rules of Monopoly – but a bit like May’s scratchy performance on Monday, at least it was not an outright disaster. Given the month the Tories have had, that may be a relief to them in itself. But what a sad reflection it is on their campaign that ‘not-an-outright-disaster’ could be seen as one of its high points.

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Moving on, I discussed May’s absence from the debate at some length yesterday, but I would like to draw attention to a video that has gone viral on social media. It was created by Momentum from an excerpt from a press conference May gave yesterday evening in Bath. It can be accessed via their Facebook page here.

The horrendous forced laugh that May put on in response to the opening question from Faisal Islam was actually disturbing. It was reminiscent of the notorious Natalie Portman laugh at the 2011 Golden Globes. Islam asked her, if May is strong and Corbyn is weak, why was Rudd at the debate instead? May followed up her laugh with a totally evasive answer, layered over with another of her favourite robotic catchphrases of “best possible deal for Britain”. The look in her eyes as she spoke was one of mortifying terror.

It shows what an unbridled pig’s breakfast that the Tories in general, and May in particular, have made of their campaign, that even the BBC’s Chief Tory-with-a-press-pass, Laura Kuenssberg, can no longer tolerate trying to defend it. When she asked the second question, she simply re-iterated the first one, suggesting flat out (and correctly) that May is frightened of going head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn.

Watching this moment, it is clear that May was unable to stop fidgeting throughout. Her response, in a voice that sounded just a little too high-pitched and a bit too fast, was one of the most profoundly stupid, self-undermining remarks I have ever heard from a Tory politician – and the competition for that title is fierce. May said that taking questions from members of the public is part of the electoral process, hence why she was at this event in Bath, and not going to attend the televised debate.

The reason this answer was so stupid should not need pointing out, but just to be on the safe side, I shall explain; the questions at the televised debate were all going to be asked by members of the public. There was also a likelihood that far more members of the public would get to see the televised debate than to see this press conference in Bath. Furthermore, the implication was rather insulting to Amber Rudd; if televised debates are really so unimportant, why is it fair to waste Rudd’s time by making her take part in them?

May then followed up this imbecilic moment with a very nervous and painfully-unfunny attempt at a wisecrack about Corbyn not attending the ITV debate. The response of the ‘audience’ was so quiet, you could have heard an amoeba clearing its throat in embarrassment.

I honestly get the impression that May is not only scared, she appears to be suffering from hyper-tension. She thought this campaign was going to be a breeze, but it has turned into a horrible, exhausting struggle, one in which she has lost every battle that she has been made to fight. The news in the opinion polls has been increasingly unhappy for the Conservatives over the last three weeks, and there now appears to be a serious danger that they are going to lose seats at the General Election next week. Perhaps even fall into a Hung Parliament. Given that May had three more years available before she had to call the Election, were the outcome to be a Hung Parliament, or even a reduced majority, this campaign would have to go down as one of the greatest-ever backfires in British politics.

The stress and strain of being in a situation that May does not know how to control is clearly weighing very heavily on her, and it looks like she is not quite coping.

I am not making fun here, by the way. I am no stranger to the misery of stress and depression, and to my surprise I was starting to feel oddly sorry for May as I watched the video. But at the same time, her misery is not exactly what I would call ‘undeserved’. She has brought it on herself by her mixture of hubris and cowardice. And if her inability to cope with the demands of an Election campaign, in which she had every advantage it was possible to have at the outset, is anything to go by, just how ‘Strong-&-Stable’ can her leadership really be, should she remain Prime Minister? Just how effectively can she negotiate a deal with the European Union? (Not that the Prime Minister will really be doing that; these details are sorted out by civil servants and lawyers, the politicians will largely just sort out the press conferences.)

May knows that she is in trouble. Her party has suffered more damage this week, and the latest YouGov poll from last night puts the lead over Labour down to just three points.

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May’s campaign has been about her, not the Conservative Party. “Vote for me!”, not “Vote for us!”. But at the same time, she has desperately tried to avoid engagement with the media or the public except at the longest-of-arm’s-lengths. Therefore, she has tried to make the campaign into a kind of ‘personality-cult’ of herself without offering any of her real personality – I am generously assuming there is far more to her than we see from her public image – for people to follow. (This makes it doubly confounding that she sent someone else to debate in her place last night; if the Election campaign is about May, it needs to be May who speaks for it.) So the Tory campaign has inevitably been a whole lot of nothing, apart from ill-defined soundbites talking up May’s own capacity to lead, which in this isolation just sound horribly superior.

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Contrast that barrenness with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, who have been out-and-about, talking to everybody they can, taking every opportunity to engage with the wider public, full of energy and ideas, not afraid to talk about policies in detail, and always bringing a firm and consistent message that their campaign is about the people and not about any one man or woman, or even one political party. Now some parts of this are a good deal less substantial than others, sure, but the point is that it does engage people, not least because it gives people something positive to hope for, other than just someone who will negotiate ‘Brexit’. People are given something to get hold of when they listen to Corbyn.

May, being a sort of ‘dull-but-sound’, pre-manufactured politician, has nothing to compete with that. She often looks very uneasy when mixing with people, at least when it is not a stage-managed meeting, she shows mediocre energy, lacks sufficient principle to realise when she is doing something immoral, is easily frightened into backing down subsequently, and is too scared of verbal slips to risk articulating policy details. The result is a campaign of chaos and public alienation. Her assumption that this was an Election she could win without even trying has made her vulnerable, while her innate powerlessness to change the tide has put her under growing strain.

May knows that, if the current trend continues, then by the Election next week, Labour may well have enough support to guarantee a Hung Parliament. Then, all that talk of a ‘Coalition of Chaos’ is sure to rebound on her, as she looks around desperately for a partner to prop up her Government, while her own backbenchers start wondering why they are making do with a leader who could not win a majority from a campaign in which she started with a twenty-plus-point advantage.

She is entitled to feel overwhelmed. I know I would in her shoes. But then, recognition of the brutality of politics is precisely why I have never seriously considered standing for election (many people have suggested to me that I should). I truly do not believe I could cope with the hostility. I therefore do not condemn May for struggling to cope, but I should point out that my inability on that score is why I am not a politician.

If May has that same inability, why is she in Government at all?

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4 Responses to “Leaders debate: How they did, and how Theresa May did not”

  1. hilary@lama.karoo.co.uk Says:

    thanks for the blogvery nice analysis Jeremy Corbyn really doesn’t have to say that much as he has either brought the others over to a more social justice perspective (apart from Nuttal/Rudd) or enabled them to feel safer talking about it despite the adverse media towards JC personally and socialism Lucas point re arms deals was very good some of the shouting was due to the chair allowing  best wishes hilary

  2. Neo-Pelagius Says:

    May is starting to look like Hillary.


  3. For those of you who remember
    if you don’t Google it?
    Remember Chamberlin came back from Europe waving a piece of paper stating Peace in our time”
    Months later. We where at War in Europe !he was a Conservative
    What a Crock?
    Don’t let it be Theresa May coming back saying “Brexit in our Time”
    Another Crock?

  4. Sophia.George 💋 Says:

    Excellent zxxx


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