Wednesday 31 May 2017

On the BBC Election Debate

The very moment Jeremy Corbyn confirmed he would be attending this evening's BBC Election Debate in Cambridge, Theresa May lost the night. Whether the last day of May will, um, prove to be the end of May remains to be seen. Yet to hide from a debate and sending a subordinate to do it for you is a catastrophic mistake, especially as your pitch is all about your super-duper leadership. I hope it will erode her strong and stable branding among those kippers, normally-Labour-but people, and soft Tories set on giving "her team" a punt. And so, straight away, without Amber Rudd uttering a single word on her boss's behalf, the Prime Minister is wounded and her party is down on points. Only something exceptional could have won it for them.

Nevertheless, this debate was not without risk for the Labour leader. In 2015 when Ed Miliband appeared alongside the leaders of the other parties, minus Dave, it arguably fed into the coalition of chaos narrative the Tories ran with deadly effect. Having Rudd turn up loses that advantage - but there were still two possible difficulties Jeremy had to avoid during the debate. The first was Rudd herself. Unlike May, Rudd appears to relish these kinds of events and by sending her along the Tories thought Labour would put Diane Abbott up - in fact, she was daft enough to say so herself. Nevertheless, Rudd is a shouty, aggressive debater who goes straight in for character attacks. The way she filleted Boris Johnson at last year's referendum debate gave us an idea of what might have been in store. The second problem is how the tri-force of the Greens, SNP, and Plaid will play (seriously, why even is UKIP there?). Rudd was bound to talk up the possibility of coalition, so did Caroline Lucas, Angus Robertson, and Leanne Wood oblige the Tories and challenge Jeremy to take them up on it? Again, Nicola Sturgeon's coalition gambit in the 2015 debates inadvertently helped Dave get his message across. Similar talk hasn't bedeviled Jeremy anywhere near to the same extent, so you had to hope he had something prepared on this.

With those dangers in mind, the objective for Jeremy tonight was to squeeze the non-Tory vote as much as possible and start making inroads into the Conservatives' electoral coalition. Inducing a few cracks in it so the support starts trickling away from May and towards the smaller parties (or suppressing a despairing Tory vote) is, at this juncture, helpful.

In the end, there was no need to be worried. It was a scrappy debate as voices were raised and they tried drowning one another out. It meant Rudd's hyper aggression didn't materialise and her attacks on Labour barely registered either in the studio or the audience. This played to Dave's advantage in 2015 because he was able to assume the mantle of outsider, as someone picked on by the nasty SNP and the others. Rudd, on this occasion, wasn't able to strike the underdog pose. Having your boss arrogantly refusing to take responsibility was always going to do that. She had a go with the coalition of chaos nonsense but it fell flat. Dave succeeded because in making it about leadership he did at least turn up to one debate, and was able to let his opponents do the rest for him. This time there wasn't too much bickering between the anti-Tory parties. Leanne Wood laid a glove on Jeremy over Labour's record in Wales and its record in voting down progressive initiatives brought to the Assembly, but that was as far as it went. Angus Robertson wisely toned down the Scottish independence angle, even to the exclusion of mentioning another referendum, thereby denying the Tories a helpful attack angle and irritating English voters who, well, find it very irritating.

What would the take homes be? I think the small parties will all be pleased with their performance. Even Nuttall turned in a pitch his dwindling band of kippers would find cheer in, even if he was at one point reduced to shouting "What about Hamas?". Tim Farron had a good night with some of the best lines, such as "Where is Theresa May tonight? She might be outside your house, sizing it up to pay for social care." And I think the standout performances came from Caroline Lucas and Robertson - the latter for her enthusiasm but effectively targeted passion, the latter for his forensic dismemberment of the Tory record.

The ones that mattered were, of course, Jeremy's and Rudd's. As I said, Rudd was drowned out and when she was given space to speak her attacks were blunted and rendered ritualistic by weeks of robotic repetition without anything positive to offer. How would it have played among the undecided at home? It's unlikely to have stiffened the resolve of voters thinking of voting Tory. Perhaps Rudd wasn't on form, she is recently bereaved after all, which makes May's decision to send her along not just cowardly, but heartless too. Likewise, while the format didn't allow Jeremy to be as effective as his Paxo grilling, it was strong and stable, to use that phrase again. He got in attacks on food banks and homelessness, education, and was given opportunity to set out Labour's stall on terrorism and security. There were no wobbles, no difficulties, no sign of the alleged weakness attributed him by others. He set out and did what he needed to.

Will this debate have a material effect on the election outcome? If it does, it will impact most on the Tories. To have all the party leaders attack May for being frit is sure to put doubt in some minds. Cracking her coalition is the game, and at this stage every vote that drains away from the Tories makes the prospect of an overall majority, let alone a landslide, recede into the distance. No clear winners then, but one very obvious loser.


Fido #votelabour said...

Always value your analysis. Never forget it was Stoke that saw off UKIP as a political force.

Speedy said...

Yes. I also liked Farron's comment about the Great British Bake Off at the end. Devastating for May.

However, I do wonder how effective even this debate would be - ie, I suspect many of the people who will vote for May will not have even watched it.

Also, this "poll" actually a survey by You Gov, is bollocks in the sense that it is a reflection of the likely outcome, and it is simply being used by the Tories to get their vote out. I will, of course, watch the votes roll in hoping for a miracle but.......

What I will say however is that I have warmed to Jeremy - I think given who he is and the team behind him (feckless ideologues) he has done the best that could be expected. Also, ironically, May is such a weak opponent that she actually makes him look "strong and stable". Certainly, I think that on an objective basis, regardless of the weakness in Corbyn's ranks (Abbot in particular) the UK would certainly not be governed any worse, and probably somewhat better, than under May. I was always going to vote Labour anyway (why change the habit of a lifetime - what a weasel Dan Hodges is) but I hope Corbyn and May's performances will have weakened the Tory landslide somewhat.

Anonymous said...

Farron was the best performer by a mile. Sharp, witty, succinct and personable.

Corbyn gets a pass mark. No slip ups but no killer lines. Rudd played a dead bat and got away with it, as she was seldom asked to defend the Tories record or their threadbare manifesto.

This format needs ditching. The one on one interviews, such as those with Andrew Neil, are much better allowing far greater scrutiny with the time for the candidate to flesh out an argument. With 7 talking heads its about easy sounbites and point scoring that do little to throw light on any subject.


Anonymous said...

Corbyn & inner circle are definition of grit. Never, ever gave up. Never quit. Never flaked. Just carried on. They deserve to win.

MikeB said...

I opined that calling a snap election was a stroke of genius on May's part, and that the Tories would win easily. Obviously, I might still be right, but the longer the campaign goes on, the better things are looking.

Even with the extraordinary pro-right campaign the BBC is running, even with a terrorist outrage to stoke up the fear factor, I hadn't realised what a catastrophically poor campaigner May is. She is so obviously being shielded and shepherded away from anything that might upset her, that her "strong and stable" schtick is simply incredible.

Go us!

Speedy said...

"Even with the extraordinary pro-right campaign the BBC is running"

I don't know about that, but i do know the Tory press is full of "labour bias" so i suspect the BBC is not doing so bad, relatively speaking.

Shai Masot said...

If I was a Tory-lite Labour MP I would not be sulking while Corbyn energises the youth of Britain. I'd offer to help; where are they?...