Sky News has hosted the closest thing that this election campaign will have to a head to head debate involving Theresa May, the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn, MP. Each took turns to face questions from a live audience guided by Faisal Islam, after which they were interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. Going in May had a lot to lose, and Corbyn a lot to prove.
This is because for Labour to win this election two things need to happen. Firstly, they have to continue differentiating themselves on important but non-traditional issues from the Tories (think Brexit) to win back floating voters. Secondly, Corbyn has to stop being an excuse undecided voters can use to say that they would vote Labour but can’t see him as a leader. This debate alone did not fully achieve either, but did allow Corbyn and Labour to gain ground on both.
- Foreign Policy
Jeremy Corbyn has been depicted as weak on foreign policy. But the very first question of this TV debate allowed him to challenge this image directly. Unlike traditional media portrayals, Corbyn’s response was unhesitating and direct. In criticising the present government’s foreign policy he differentiated the Labour approach. In following this up with examples of what he would focus on, he demonstrated that he does have an understanding of geopolitics. Corbyn’s list, which included cutting off funding, stopping the sale of arms, supporting various peace processes more firmly by once more convening the Geneva talks, and combating IS’ propaganda, shows an individual who would tackle the challenges the UK faces on the world stage head on. Another audience member was more blunt: would Mr. Corbyn be prepared to use a nuclear deterrent? This question was loaded, considering Corbyn’s historic opposition to nuclear weapons. He opened strong, declaring that he wants to live in a world without nuclear weapons. He waffled the middle. But he closed strong too: “I will write the appropriate letter [of last resort]” authorising nuclear weapons. Paxman ended up looking fairly rabid in trying to shift him on this.
- Corbyn Crushes…
From holding his ground when questioned to links with IRA, to arguing that he is an effective leader (which resulted in more applause) Corbyn demonstrated how effective idealism can be in politics. In firing questions back as part of his answer (“Are you happy that so many of our children are going to school with super-sized classes?”) he risked a lot. But he won a lot. Part of May’s difficulties in this campaign have flowed from a consistent failure to look approachable. Corbyn may have sounded aggressive and single-minded in pursuing his ideals but at least he went beyond campaign catch phrases in answering the audience and showed what he truly believes in.
- …May Mumbles
There was no point at which May became passionate about what she was selling. Even though May (in perhaps the best move of her campaign yet) refused to debate Corbyn head on, the two were close enough that it became clear that Corbyn is selling a vision whilst May is pursuing an agenda. And the first applause during May’s Q&A with the audience was the result not of an answer by the PM, but by the emotional question raised by an audience member expressing his fear that he would not be able to leave his home to his children because of the “dementia tax”.
Both a leaver and a remainer had a crack against Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit stance. If the leavers are unhappy with Labour’s failure to provide an absolute number on the cap, the remainers are equally unhappy due to the failure of Labour to differentiate itself from the Tory platitudes. Corbyn did well to state that with him there would “be a deal”. This has now become the principal distinction between the two parties on this stance.
For Theresa May, Joy’s question was not at all joyous. In Joy’s local area Conservative leaflets promised £350 million a week extra for the NHS. This has now disappeared as a realistic option. The Prime Minister’s answer was a rehearsed fall back to needing a seasoned hand on the rudder in these times and had nothing to do with addressing the lie.
- Public Services Funding
Funding for police, schools, and the NHS were all issues on which May is weak and came away looking weak. Sure, she knew her figures. But this made her attempts to dodge other questions even more embarrassing. For example, in answering the question on school funding, her assertion that the Tories would continue to put record funding into the sector simply failed to stand against Faisal’s correction that this still did not translate into a real term increase.
And once the media bias has been removed, it became clear that Corbyn’s policies are extremely popular. The biggest approval applause of the night belonged to the Labour leader outlining his vision of more funding for schools and the NHS. Costing concerns did not appear to be on many people’s minds, except of course, the editors of the Sun (here and here).
The Tories under Theresa May have always seemed the stronger choice. But this election campaign has shone a light on the challenges besieging the Tories and the longer it continues the weaker they become. The 8th of June can’t come quickly enough for the Tories because this was the first glimmer of a Labour win as Corybn manages to finally fight the negative spin that has been surrounding him as a leader and politician.