It has been a couple of weeks since my last article discussed the possibility of Theresa May snubbing the head-to-head leaders’ debates, and tonight illustrated just what a ‘bloody difficult woman’ she really is. Despite the invite from ITV remaining open until the debate began at 8pm, both May and Corbyn refused to take part. Even with these notable absences, I take a look at the winners and losers on the night, and assess whether this will have any affect come polling day.
Although it was suggested to call out and empty chair both the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn, ITV resisted this, and opted to have five podiums for the five leaders present. The debate marks the first of the televised leaders’ debates of the campaign and was moderated by Julie Etchingham; featuring questions on the NHS, the economy, education, the younger generation and of course, Brexit – a recurring issue of the two hour long debate.
It took no time at all for the party leaders to begin commenting on the notable absence of the Prime Minister, with Leanne Wood pulling the first punch in her opening statement, stating that May was hiding from her persistent U-turns and failing to defend her ‘cruel’ policies by choosing not to attend. Unsurprisingly, Brexit was mentioned within all of the opening statements, with four of the five leaders having some form of opposition to Brexit – a spectacle which could well push Leave voters towards Mrs May. Unlike the debates in 2010 which saw a then exuberant Nick Clegg break the standard mould and offer a ‘new kind of politics’, no leader stood out in such a way, or could be seen as an overall winner of the debate. Instead it was a case of winners of single questions, as well as demonstrating the ability of the ‘progressive parties’ to work together, or in Mrs May’s case, highlight the ‘Coalition of Chaos’. On these issues, Tim Farron was the clear winner if a ‘soft Brexit’ or re-run of the referendum is your thing, with him setting his stall out early in his opening statement, with a bold approach and a clear pitch to be the Leader of the Opposition – an approach which appears to still not be cutting through with voters or senior party figures.
As expected, Brexit dominated the debate, with the opening question raising the issue of the Brexit negotiations. In fact, you could say that this was almost a re-run of the referendum campaign, with four of the party leaders attacking the Prime Minister’s negotiation stance and dubbing it an ‘extreme Brexit’, a notion which may well anger those who voted Leave. To the amusement of the live audience UKIP leader Paul Nuttall was frequently dubbed Theresa May’s ‘spokesperson’, due to her failing to attend and him being the only leader present in full support of Brexit; something which may well help UKIP come polling day.
However, perhaps the shock of the night came from the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, by not uttering the words ‘Scottish Independence’ once during the debate. Sturgeon’s team are clearly feeling the heat and are cautious of Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives’ advances in Scotland during the local elections. Instead, Sturgeon focused on actual policy and attempted to justify her and the SNP’s poor record in Scotland.
What was clear from this debate was that it was not like a standard election debate in which we have come to know since 2010. There were no locking of horns, nor even many disagreements, largely due to the ‘progressive’ parties working together to attack both the Conservatives and Labour and their Brexit stances, as well as their inability to show up. One particular example of this can be seen in the question relating to education. Not one leader challenged Sturgeon and the SNP’s dismal record on education, something that Conservative HQ capitalised on with its ‘Coalition of Chaos’ slogan while live Tweeting during the debate – something which was widely criticised, including by ITV’s Political Editor, Robert Peston.
— Robert Peston (@Peston) May 18, 2017
Overall, this was a dull, over-controlled and irrelevant leaders’ debate in which the only two real highlights was Paul Nuttall calling Leanne Wood ‘Natalie’ – twice. And, despite my previous article stating that Theresa May could lose out by not taking part, this seems to have instead turned out to be clever electioneering by the Prime Minister, who may well have been sitting watching the debate in her leather trousers, smiling at the fact that she could well have just secured plenty more votes for her Brexit cause.
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