Monday 29 May 2017

May vs Corbyn: The Verdict

It's a misnomer to describe this as May vs Corbyn seeing as it's not a head-to-head debate, but it is true that tonight's Battle for Downing Street could settle the question of who-to-vote-for for millions of undecided people. As anyone who's been out canvassing in this campaign will tell you, there are plenty of them about. For each leader their encounter with Paxman relates to their campaigns differently. For Theresa May, whose strategy and messaging has collapsed, it's about turning round the Tory party's fortunes. They still command leads in the polls but have lost ground thanks to three things: the dementia tax, a rubbish, arrogant campaign, and the strong campaign Labour has run. While for May tonight was about salvaging a victory from the mess, for Jeremy Corbyn it has to be on building on Labour's dynamism and carry the poll surge upwards. Success for either leader can be measured by how convincingly May depicts Labour as a security risk, and how Corbyn paints the Tories as a risk to self-security. Paxman's job, meanwhile, was to get under their skin and show up the contradictions and problems of both.

How did it go?

Like last time, each 45 minute slot was broken into two parts - questions from the audience (one third Tory, one third Labour, one third undecided), and the second half a grilling from Paxman. Corbyn went first and took questions on the IRA and nuclear weapons - following a path firmly trod by a right wing media and a government increasingly desperate to weaponise any old rope against him. Unexpectedly, he received applause for setting out Labour's position on immigration (which subordinates numbers to perceived economic necessity) when, previously, this has was regarded a major Achilles Heel. He took a question from an alleged former Labour supporter who owned a small business and was worried about a rise in corporation tax, plans to introduce VAT charges to his children's school fees, and zero hour contracts. Very sensibly Corbyn hit the one nationist high road to talk about how spreading fairness was in everyone's interests, and that businesses like his would benefit from operating in a more benign environment. Not the class struggle Trot response many Tory supporters, and no doubt the questioner himself was hoping for. Also asked on his fitness to lead, he replied that telling people what to do isn't a sign of leadership - listening is. As he put it, "You should never be so high and mighty that you can't listen to someone else and learn something".

It was a very strong performance that attracted praise from across the commentariat, including unlikely plaudits from your Dan Hodges and Nigel Farages. We then moved into the grilling from Paxman and, to be honest, Corbyn looked just as unruffled as he was during the first half. Some frustration did get the better of him as Paxo kept jumping in without giving him chance to answer a question. And what questions. Considering this man used to be regarded as Britain's best political interviewer, he wasn't on form tonight. Totally misunderstanding how Labour's manifesto is put together and having no clue about our traditions of collective discipline made him look bad and ill-tempered. You knew Paxo was in a sticky wicket when he was berating Corbyn for not getting the abolition of the monarchy and scrapping Trident into the manifesto. Bizarre. He then reverted to IRA/Hamas and state security matters. Corbyn is so practiced now at handling these sorts of questions that an interviewer of Paxo's experience should perhaps have focused on other things instead. Nevertheless, Corbyn escaped unscathed without a single glove landing. A commanding performance. Strong and stable, you might say.

We all know Theresa May avoids the public like a vampire recoils from garlic, so in many ways she approached this as an unknown quantity for millions of people. And how did she do? With the audience she took questions on police numbers, the NHS, and the dementia tax. While some were hoping for a collapse that didn't happen, but her approach wasn't relaxed either. It was classical Westminster: you take the question and make a real meal of it, refusing to answer and covering up gaping chasms with vague generalisations and padding in the hope of crowding further questions out. I didn't find it convincing, but then I know what to look for. The method aims to convey the impression that the speaker knows what they're talking about and draw any controversial sting from it. Here May performed competently enough, though a quick aside on the "uncosted" Labour manifesto drew snorts of derision and mocking laughter from the audience.

How did she do with Paxo? Remarkably, or not considering he is a self-confessed one nation Tory, the question style was a relaxed but occasionally awkward chat. Less politics, more the analyst's couch. There were next to no interruptions and May was allowed to waffle on as she pleased. However, she almost came unstuck at this more sedate pace. She was troubled by the dementia tax, repeating her pat answers of the last week. She was taken to task for going back on her word over calling the general election and was challenged over Brexit. As Paxo had it, the people in Brussels would look at Theresa May and see "a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire". Unfortunately, his loyalties got the better of going for the jugular and she was given the space to row back and waffle some more. In sum, she didn't perform badly but almost came undone under the gentlest of pressures. Not a good look.

While it didn't have any material outcome on the 2015 election, The Battle for Number 10 was part of the theatre of that campaign. David Cameron was slippery and slick, yet mostly able to look the part - which was his sole discernible talent as Prime Minister. And Ed Miliband came over as passionate but a little bit awkward. Remember "hell yeah I'm tough enough"? It confirmed opinions already baked into voters' decisions. Tonight? Most people have an opinion about Corbyn, for good or ill, thanks to the blanket coverage he's received for nearly two years. And after his exceptional performance, some may have had their expectations confounded. May on the other hand can give good speech at set piece events without questions, but did she look like someone who can cope with criticisms? Did she look like someone competent enough to oversee the Brexit negotiations? To Labour people and others who follow such things, obviously not. It is to be hoped that after tonight many millions more have drawn a similar conclusion.


george said...

At the end of both audience questions I estimate that most people were clapping at the end of Corbyn's questions but only half the audience were clapping May.

Anonymous said...

There was a sharp contrast between Paxman's questioning of Corbyn and his silkily sycophantic handling of May. For Corbyn, he attacked with wild allegations that might have come from the worst excesses of the Daily Express, and at times his eyes flashed the kind of daggers that Religious Right ranters do, when they 'get in a state'. He looked overbearingly over-heated, a bully about to burst like a balloon gone from red to puce in his paranoid delusional probings. And he continually cut in on Jeremy's responses-that currently overused tactic of the right wing media to deny air time to the entirely reasonable views of a thoughtful moderate. To May, of course, he afforded a wealth of time, and questions which barely scraped the surface.

Anonymous said...

A 0-0 draw. Neither particularly impressed, but neither made a serious error.
Both evaded a number of questions and looked uncomfortable at times.
As Corbyn is proving a bit better than people imagined (commanding, er no), while May is proving a great deal worse than expected it wasn't a bad night's work.
And yes, Paxman was dreadful. Andrew Neil does this sort of thing to a tee.


Anonymous said...

Jeremy Paxman's change of style for each candidate was disgraceful. He attempted to make it look like he was being as confrontative with TM as he was with JC but then just sat back and, as you say, let her waffle her way out. He was down right rude with JC and it appeared like blantant bias on his part.

Shai Masot said...

Jezza done good. Even Tories and Blairites gave his performance the thumbs up. Like Craig Murray though, I was left open-mouthed by an absolutely unbelievably biased Sky account and edited highlights of the debate leading their hourly news. Scarey.

Speedy said...

I didn't think Paxman was especially biased ("blowhard" comment the single memorable takeout) just ineffective and pantomime-shallow, but equally so for both. JC a Republican?! Does anyone really give a shit? Even HRH must have laughed at that. I think the "Paxman prejudice" talk merely exhibits the commentator prejudice.

Andrew Coates said...

What struck me the most was the point you make Phil, Paxman had no grasp of "our traditions of collective discipline".

It was as if his ignorance of how the Labour Party works was pretty deep.

Anonymous said...

BLAIRITES! Discover the socialist within you and support Labour. Keynesianism isn't extreme or unrealistic. It's groovy and cool!