The seven-way TV debate: the verdict

The two who mattered in this debate were Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. She didn't turn up and he looked as if he wished he hadn't either

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Wednesday 31 May 2017 22:21
Amber Rudd jeered as she defends her government's record

It wasn’t quite as unwatchable as it threatened to be. It was good to be reminded that Tim Farron existed. He was quite good. His opening statement was the most straightforward. His pitch was a penny on income tax for the NHS and social care, and giving the people the final say on Brexit. His folksy relating of every question to his personal experience is easy to mock but an effective way of getting his message across.

But there were only two people in this debate, Jeremy Corbyn and Amber Rudd. Neither of them was very good. The Labour leader thought he had made his point by turning up. He made no reference to Theresa May’s absence in his opening statement. That seemed quite statesmanlike, but I assumed he was saving it up for later. He wasn’t. His was an underpowered performance in front of an audience that seemed ready to support him.

Rudd, on the other hand, does “not very good” rather well. She comes across as commanding. So much so that Corbyn at one point referred to “members of your Cabinet”. He was supposed to be drawing attention to May’s absence, not implying that Rudd was of similar stature.

Rudd at least paid the audience the compliment of taking the trouble to prepare one line. “You’re at it again,” she said, after the leaders of the parties in the so-called progressive alliance had been squabbling and talking over each other. Imagine if this lot tried to run a coalition government, she said. They played into her hands by talking over each other in response, several of them trying to make the feeble point that the Conservatives and Ukip were a coalition.

That allowed Rudd to sum up by contrasting the “coalition of chaos” with the “quiet of the polling booth”. I don’t know if that worked with any of the audience, but it sounded like serious politics.

By contrast, Corbyn was on auto-pilot. At one point, when invited to talk about leadership, instead of having a go at May’s leadership-by-hiding, he seemed to take it as an invitation to refight Labour battles, reminding us that 300,000 people had voted for him.

Indeed, he seemed determined not to mention May, allowing Farron and Caroline Lucas instead to take the applause with the attacks on the Prime Minister for calling an election and then failing to turn up for the debate. You couldn’t tell if this was absent-mindedness on his part or a cunning plan. Either way, it didn’t work.

Caroline Lucas and Angus Robertson make impassioned pleas in favour of immigration

The rest was dull. Rudd went for hackneyed slogans about the “magic money tree” and the need for a strong economy. Corbyn was petulant, repeating “can I finish” so much it has become a verbal tic. He only came to life when Angus Robertson, the leader of the SNP MPs at Westminster, attacked him on Brexit. “Did you not notice the referendum?” Corbyn demanded. Later he shot at Robertson: “Shame you don’t use your powers to end austerity.”

The bit-parts were bit-parts. Most people can’t vote SNP, or for Leanne Wood’s Plaid Cymru. They can’t even vote for the Ukip candidate in half the constituencies of the UK. And there are several parties in Northern Ireland that have more MPs than the Green Party and Ukip. At least Paul Nuttall didn’t try to copy Nigel Farage’s shock tactics of ranting about people with Aids coming to Britain. And Lucas’s soppy stuff about “living and loving in 27 other members states” was harmless enough.

In the end, Farron was a bit-part too. He had a good pitch, but everyone knows that his big Brexit message hasn't cut through, not even in Remainer Cambridge, a Labour-held Lib Dem target seat.

The two who mattered in this debate were Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. She didn't turn up and he looked as if he wished he hadn't either.

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