Jeremy Corbyn made the first big speech of the campaign today, presenting himself as the anti-Establishment voice, the scourge of Sir Shifty (to give him his formal, tabloid monicker) and other successful rich people. It seems like a reasonable play by Jeremy as Theresa May has already bagged the “safe and dependable” label – “the leader you can trust”. Corbs has no cards to play in that game, so he has to make a grab for a quite different part of the electoral anatomy. The insurgency soapbox is getting crowded though, and he has to share it with Tim and the Libs, UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.
It’s hard to see what other tactics are on offer to the non-government forces. Mrs Theresa May — her very name evokes the smooth, methodical calm of the vicarage in which she was raised — is riding the one-seater trust trike with extra stabilisers. In this turbulent world, she is saying, you have me to protect you. Right now, it’s the safest slot. Will it keep her cushioned for seven weeks? Unlikely. Will it keep her safe enough to survive? Probably. We can’t say more than that. Depends on those pesky events that Macmillan promised — or warned about.
The biggest story so far is May’s refusal to take part in the planned televised debates. She’s not been punished — yet. Indeed, today’s opinion polls show her extending her lead over Jeremy. Once the debates get scheduled, and the demands to “empty-chair” her (how’s that for an egregious modern verb?), then questions may be asked. I presume the Daily Mirror chicken is being given its final pep talk in some Canary Wharf shed. (Stop press — as you can see, it’s already been given a runout.)
I’m ambivalent on this. Supporters of unpopular politicians treat these showbiz events as some ancient democratic ritual that no one is allowed to avoid. In fact, they’re a recent phenomenon in the UK, starting in 2010, and have little connection with the democratic process. Policies are published and distributed long before the TV shows happen. They are essentially disastertainment. Like going to watch speedway. No one really cares about the bikes or the skill of the riders. We want to see the crashes. The TV “debates” have scant concern for enlightening policy comparison. They revolve around the hope that your man, or woman, will find the right phrase at the right moment; like the drooping, pummelled boxer suddenly unleashing an unexpected knock-out blow, just as you sensed they were about to sink to their knees in submission. We want to see the media darlings under pressure, and treasure the tantalising possibility of the favoured candidate tripping up, and uttering a hasty jumble of words that can be fashioned into a self-beating weapon.
If you’re Jeremy Corbyn, it makes sense to snatch at these precious opportunities as you’re being marched to the gallows. As many Brexit voters thought to themselves last June, “I’ve nothing left to lose, so what the hell?” For Theresa May, the position is reversed. We must now, surely, be at the summit of Mount May. Why would she risk being shoved down the scree by this semi-circle of enemies?
I had a long email correspondence about this yesterday with an old friend. Like many long-standing Labour supporters, his true, unshakeable loyalty is less to Labour and more to a bone-deep loathing of “the Tories” and other assorted ne’er-do-wells. He is upset by May’s “childishness” in claiming that she prefers traditional campaigning on the stump, over this new-fangled television thing. I understand his irritation, but really, what would he expect her to say? “It’s too risky, so I won’t take part”? This is the clear truth of the matter, but no politician could utter those words. They are left with the weedy excuses that we all know are weedy excuses. Even she knows it’s a weedy excuse, as did the weary interviewer.
Harold Wilson tried unsuccessfully to get Alec Douglas-Home into a TV studio with him in 1964. But Wilson then turned down Ted Heath’s identical invitation in 1970. As the BBC reports,
“And so began a pattern of U-turns as political self-interest dominated any principled arguments. Other examples include the Conservative Prime Minister John Major, who went from apparently principled refusal in 1992 to challenging the Labour leader Tony Blair to a debate in 1997.”
Blair too found himself buffeted by political cross-winds, variously supporting and opposing TV debates depending on the contemporary weather.
To his credit (or was it desperation?) Gordon Brown became the first incumbent to agree to such a TV spectacular — the famous one in which everyone agreed with Nick — a popularity ambush that eventually earned Clegg his valuable coalition payoff. The even later consequence for Nick was the LibDems’ support crumbling in 2015, and a seeming Labour life sentence of disdain. I’m not sure how many Achilles Heels one is allowed to have, but seemingly one of many belonging to the Left in general is an inability to forgive and forget. Labour’s eternal grumpiness about being jilted by Clegg in 2010, in favour of those baby-eating Tory bastards, makes an electoral pact unlikely in this campaign, and over the next century or two.
All very odd really. As I reminded my Remain-voting Labour friend, here is your chance to destroy the Tories forever, and reverse the Brexit vote. Why would they not do it? I don’t know, but on balance, I’m glad (for the time being) that their hatreds outweigh any desire for power.