The five things we learned from the May v Corbyn TV show…
1) LAUGHED TAT
‘Laughter is the best medicine’, according to all those David Brent-style mottos on office walls across the land. Well, being laughed at is not great for the political health of a Prime Minister. Especially one who has called a snap election on the grounds that she’s strong, stable and seriously in touch.
In her first live TV event of the 2017 election campaign, Theresa May was subjected to heckling, jeers and open ridicule for her range of answers on things like cuts to the NHS, schools and broken promises on immigration. And it was real-life police officers, teachers and midwives who put the PM on the spot most.
One of the most dramatic moments came in response to May claiming “nobody can guarantee a per pupil funding increase. The Labour party’s manifesto, we know the figures don’t add up…” At that point the exasperated audience yelled “It’s costed!” “Look at your own figures!” and “You’ve clearly failed”. One bloke actually mouthed the word ‘bollocks’.
It was moment that actually summed up the public’s irritation at being taken for fools in this election. Despite the volatility of modern politics, it confirmed that some normal rules still apply. One of those is that even a ‘new’ Prime Minister can’t escape her party’s record if her party has been in power for seven years. The other is that the PM can’t escape her party no matter how much she wants to have a ‘Presidential’ contest. Oh, and tribal loyalties to party are still strong.
And the perhaps the strangest thing of all in this campaign has been the way May approved a social care policy that fuelled rather than dispelled her very own coinage of the Tories’ image as ‘the nasty party’. Last night 89-year-old Philip Webster, a working class homeowner with a proud regimental badge, made the PM squirm as he asked why she wanted a ‘dementia tax’ to stop his children inheriting his home. Not capping care costs was a piece of policy tat the grey vote (and Tory canvassers) spotted swiftly.
Yet note too that although pensioner Philip was not happy with May’s answer, he said afterwards that he would still vote for her. We picked up a similar sentiment in this week’s HuffPost-Edelman focus group, with former Lib Dem voters in Watford saying how much they loathed the social care plan but would still stick with the Tories. The U-turn was messy but things could have been even worse if Lynton Crosby (and co-chief of staff Fiona Hill) hadn’t scraped that barnacle off the boat.
There was no game-changer last night for either side (and it looks like a 1950s two-horse race these days, something else that helps Labour). May’s evasive, robotic answers, plus Corbyn beating expectations, could just solidify the polls where they are. And it’s worth remembering that on most polls, the Tories would increase their majority to possibly 75. Pollster Rob Hayward said yesterday “I doubt 30 seats was what Theresa May would have hoped for but we’re still talking about a large majority.” As ever, the numbers are what matter most.
2) BREXIT TRUMP CARD
At a rally in Twickenham yesterday, I asked the PM if she was ‘relaunching’ her election campaign a week after the social care U-turn. She denied it, saying she was doing “exactly what I’ve been doing up and down the country” in recent weeks. Except she wasn’t. And the placards behind her told the story. Gone were the ‘strong and stable leadership’ mottos and instead were ‘The Best Brexit Deal’ and ‘A Strong Economy’.
Daily Mail sketchwriter Quentin Letts even asked “I don’t mean to be rude but you seem to be a bit of a glumbucket.” May’s Death Star death stare was so strong it could have demolished several small planets. Yet the jibe did allow her to switch back to her main theme that she had called the election for the serious business of getting a bigger mandate for Brexit and that’s what she would do.
Today, the PM will ram home the message with a speech seeking to exploit once again the EU’s hard line on Brexit. Seizing on two new position statements from Brussels (rights for EU citizens to bring non-EU family members to the UK decades after Brexit, more welfare rights, a big divorce bill), she will trot out her latest line that there will be just 11 days after June 8 before the new PM has to start talks with Europe.
May’s talk of the European Commission adopting “an aggressive negotiating position, which can only be met by strong leadership on behalf of Britain,” will go down very well with Leavers. Even Angela Merkel’s beer-tent warning at the weekend that Europe can no longer rely on May’s Britain is likely to only deepen convictions among Leavers.
And as the Channel4/SkyNews show neared its end, Jeremy Paxman actually played May’s Brexit trump card for her. Dripping with sarcasm, he said "even Andrea Leadsom" got it right on Brexit while May had flunked it. Yet his line of questioning allowed her to say no fewer than five times that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ (see below). Along with Ken Clarke (whose ‘bloody difficult woman’ line she exploited again), Paxman was May’s best friend last night.
While she was laughed at over domestic policy wobbles and blunders, on Brexit May had the last laugh. She said with real force that she was standing up for people who had been “ridiculed and ignored for too long”. Some commentators suggest that May’s ‘done a Ted Heath’, when he called a general election in 1974, asking ‘who runs Britain?’ only to get the answer ‘not you’. But in fact 2017 may more resemble 1987. That’s when the last sitting female Tory PM increased her majority despite a dire campaign, not because of it. And the underlying reason would be support from working class Leave voters, Labour, UKIP and Tory alike.
3) ZEN MASTER
One of Labour’s most effective spin room lines after #BattleForNo10 was that “Corbyn makes the audience laugh with him. May makes the audience laugh at her.” With lower expectations, Jeremy Corbyn’s cardigan charisma certainly shone through and he became more Zen-like as the evening wore on.
Ed Miliband tweeted “these gigs are hard..it was an assured performance”, and he should know (one of the most memorable moments in his own TV debates of 2015 among focus groups came when he both fell off the stage in Question Time and muddled his line on the deficit). Nigel Farage added: “I may not agree with Jeremy Corbyn but he came across as being totally sincere”.
Anyone who’s seen Corbyn on the road over the last two years will know that he thrives on the campaign trail. But as well as having an inner confidence boosted by his avid followers, he also has got much better at media interviews. All those hustings exchanges and journalists’ questions have allowed him to refine his answers and play to his strengths as a man of integrity who’s unafraid of doing things differently. Just as Cameron perfected his skills through years of ‘Cameron Direct’ and ‘PM Direct’ events, so too Corbyn has learned his extra-Parliamentary trade.
That’s not to say there weren’t moments last night when the Labour leader was again less than clear on his own party policy. Having flipped and flopped on his line on the Tory benefits freeze at his manifesto launch, Corbyn again shifted position when he told Paxman benefits “are not going to be frozen because they’ll be uprated every year, as they should be.” That really needs some costings and detail on how it fits with other welfare plans.
On immigration, some may see as refreshing his refusal to make a promise he can’t deliver (and May certainly hasn’t). Yet his line that immigration “certainly wouldnt go up” contrasted with his own uncertainty as to whether it would go down. “It would probably go down - but I don’t want to be held to this – come down. That’s a probablility,” he said. For some traditional Labour voters, a clear intention (even one broken in the past) is better than no intention at all.
Corbyn’s better than predicted campaign has probably bought him time and goodwill among his party members after June 9. That’s the comfort already being taken by some Tories from their own failings: he’ll do well enough in vote share to persuade Labour members he should stay on as leader, but badly enough in seats to prove some Labour voters in marginal seats will never let him become PM.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this heroic bit of British awkwardness when a May supporter rises to give the PM a standing ovation - only to realise he’s on his own.
4) THE MATE DICTATOR
“I’m not a dictator” Jeremy Corbyn said last night, explaining why he had not imposed all his own views on party policy. But his views on not taking on various unsavoury leaders, from Assad to ISIS chiefs to Putin to Galtieri, were the focus of much of the quizzing over foreign and security policy.
Corbyn managed to stand up to the strong Tory attacks on his view that British foreign policy has somehow made Britain more prone to terrorist outrages like Manchester. A Survation poll yesterday found that 46% thought UK military interventions overseas did increase the risk of terror attacks at home. And both Boris Johnson and David Davis have made the point that the Iraq war did just that. Corbyn managed to make it sound like he was not ‘excusing’ terror, just trying to point out how to prevent feeding its breeding grounds overseas.
Yet he didn’t get it all his own way. Some voters won’t have been reassured at all by his refusal to say he would allow a drone strike on a terrorist. He suggested he supported the shooting of the Westminster attacker, yet was vague on other decisive action.
And although the Tories have overreached themselves in trying to portray Corbyn as a terrorists’ friend, on the IRA he was far from reassuring. Some will accept his line that he just wanted all sides to talk peace, but many would be horrified if he had indeed said in 1987 that he was “all those who died fighting for an independent Ireland”. Many Labour MPs most loathe attempts by Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott to either lie about or dismiss lightly their support for the IRA. Abbott, whose numbers blunders still have real ‘cut through’, comparing her previous views with her 1970s hairstyle was seen by the Tories as their main gift of the weekend shows.
On the Falklands too, Corbyn sounded out of touch with working class voters. Talking about the UN taking on the Argentine military junta and saying “Margaret Thatcher made a great deal of the whole issue. I felt she was exploiting the situation” could do him real damage among what’s left of Labour’s military vote.
5) PAXO STUFFED
In the battle of the two Jeremys, it was Paxo who came off as Angry Jezza and Corbyn who emerged as Friendly Jezza.
Indeed the whole show was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the Paxmanesque shouty, eye-rolling, interruption-addicted interview approach. Paxman veered from sounding badly briefed to just plain obsessive. The contrast could not be greater with Andrew Neil, who asks a killer question and then is merciless in his follow-ups, being fleet of foot enough to further press on weak answers.
Paxman’s big mistake was in thinking that either May or Corbyn would look bad for tacking and trimming their previous views (May on Remain, Corbyn on nuclear disarmament). Both were allowed to look pragmatic rather than ideological, leaving Paxman himself to come across as a zealot.
He did have a couple of good moments. The Falklands was a previously untested area. And he did have a zinger for May: “If I was sitting in Brussels and I was looking at you as the person I had to negotiate with, I’d think ‘she’s a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire’.”
Yet Paxo swiftly undermined his own point by then pressing the PM on Brexit, allowing her to say how she really would walk away with no deal rather than a bad deal. By repeating the question FIVE times, a pastiche of his own 15 famous questions to Michael Howard, he was hoist by his own petard. As the relieved look on May’s face showed, repeatedly asking a question your interviewee rather likes is actually not exactly testing journalism.
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