Why Theresa May is right to refuse a debate with Jeremy Corbyn

Television debates work for the US presidential elections because those debating are going to be named on the ballot paper come election day. Unless you reside in Maidenhead or Islington North, neither May nor Corbyn will appear on your ballot paper

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The build-up to elections has changed in recent years. A generation ago, the EU bus scandal wouldn’t have exploded in the way it did. Twitter and Facebook did not exist to virally spread the news so quickly. Maybe Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected as President of the United States if social media hadn’t widely spread the Clinton allegations in the days leading to the election.

Facebook Live is another way party leaders and potential MPs can reach out to their voters quickly and easily and yesterday the Prime Minister appeared on ITV’s general election series.

During the interview, a “Jeremy Corbyn from Islington” asked if Theresa May would appear in a live debate with him. She responded saying, “I don’t think people get much out of seeing politicians having a go at each other; I think people want to hear directly.”

Again, Theresa May has it spot on. There’s zero need for her to enter a public mudslinging match. Anyone with a keen political eye who tunes into PMQs every Wednesday will know too well this is what happens when they go up against each other. Usually it ends with Corbyn cowering with his tail between his legs. 

A Corbyn versus May head-to-head on primetime television (or on Facebook Live) cannot bring anything good to your average voter. What use is Jeremy Corbyn wailing about Brexit and Theresa May laughing off his anti-austerity measures going to do for actual voters? The resulting compromise, of allowing questions from an audience to each candidate separately followed by a good grilling by “rottweiler” Jeremy Paxman is much more productive and informative for voters.

Television debates work for the US presidential elections. In 2016, Donald Trump went head-to-head with his presidential rival Hilary Clinton three times running up to the election. That was so entertaining many from the UK were awake in the small hours wondering what was going to come next.

They work in the US because those debating are going to be named on the ballot paper come election day. Unless you reside in Maidenhead or Islington North, neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn will appear on your ballot paper.

General Election polls and projections: May 16

On 8 June, we will be electing individuals from our local constituencies who will form a government. Of course, the party we support impacts our vote as well as the individual candidate, but the debate is not one to have nationally.

Neither candidate has the expert knowledge on the regional issues that matter to voters. They won’t be discussing the closure of a specific hospital or the perfect location to build a new school.

A debate with both candidates could quickly descend into car crash television with each insult being prepared meticulously and each dig making easy headlines. It will provide minimal insight to thoughtful voters and instead provide the Twitterati something to hashtag and moan about. 

Of course, Theresa May doesn’t need to have a televised debate. Broken down regionally, the Labour vote share is down according to YouGov in all but the South East and South West (both predominately Tory areas) since 2015.

The Prime Minister is leagues ahead of Corbyn in the opinion polls; levels unseen since Margaret Thatcher’s day. Why would she risk this potentially landslide win to have a few digs at her rival live on TV when she could slip up and cut the percentage?

Corbyn is clutching at straws – he has many people within his party who undermine him. His election manifesto was leaked; hardly a sign of a party in this together. Even Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson believes the election will be disastrous for the party.

Theresa May is coasting to a memorable victory on 8 June – taking the time out of a hectic pre-election schedule to debate Jeremy Corbyn live will not benefit her, or any of us.