If she won’t then neither will he, turn up for the televised debates ahead of the general election that is. Both Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn have decided to sit out one of the big set-pieces of the campaign.
The decision is disappointing, but not all that surprising, all politicians project the myth that they aren’t like the others, even though by experience, background and inclination they almost always are. This pair though seem to have internalized what was only ever intended to be a bit of sales talk.
Mrs. May truly believes herself to be a ‘doorstep campaigner’ and is even rumored to have been less than pleased when her team gave her only a few minutes to interact with the public during a trip to Scotland this week.
In these terrorism haunted days the security logistics of managing an interaction between the prime minister and random members of the public are complex to say the least, sufficiently so for it to be kept to a minimum. Anyway striking up spontaneous conversation with people on whom she hasn’t been briefed is hardly Mrs. May’s strong point, you could be forgiven for thinking that were she to have a chat with the Downing Street milkman it would involve an agenda and minutes taken by her private secretary.
Jeremy Corbyn thinks the fact that he can draw a crowd despite neither looking nor sounding like a professional politician means he can bypass a media that for the most part don’t like him much. That the crowd in question is largely composed of uber-trots from Momentum should give him pause for thought; no movement of consequence ever sustained itself by preaching to the converted and hoping that their cheering drowns out the muttering of the doubts even the truest of true believers secretly entertain.
Politics is and always has been more about performance than many of the participants like to admit. The most brilliant ideas go ignored if they are conveyed in the dull monotone of a ‘speak your weight’ machine that has given up on life.
Although they have only been a feature of our political life since 2010 the televised debates have become one of the figures a political performer must pull off if he or she is to succeed. The first time round they made Nick Clegg, unlikely though that now seems, into the most popular politician since Churchill, in 2015 they made a star out of Nicola Sturgeon.
By refusing to take part May and Corbyn aren’t being bravely individualistic; they’re perpetuating an institutional arrogance that sets voters teeth on edge. In the latter case a significant opportunity is being allowed go unclaimed.
It is easy to see why Mrs. May might not relish a televised debate, the campaign so far has shown her to have two rhetorical settings, a Thatcher style crossness and a scary habit of repeating soundbites as if she thinks doing so will hypnotize her audience. Strong and stable, you are getting very sleepy.
Jeremy Corbyn though has everything to gain from taking part in the debates, his performances at the dispatch box have improved mightily now over the past year or so. He also has the advantage of believing what he says, however muddled and with integrity being so rare a commodity in politics that is something to which the viewing public may well be inclined to warm.
They’re not going to do it though, the lady isn’t for turning and so the gentleman fells obliged to miss an open goal. Where do we go from here?
The obvious answer is for the debates to go ahead with the leaders of the, so called, ‘smaller’ parties taking centre stage. At first the fact that none of the participants is in with a shout of claiming the top prize might seem to be a turn off, in fact it is an advantage.
For a start Leanne Wood and Caroline Lucas are both formidable debaters who seldom get the media coverage they deserve, when he can keep off the subject of sin Tim Farron can hit a few sweet shot too. More importantly without the keys to Downing Street dangling before their eyes the leaders taking part might (gasp) actually unburden themselves of a few honest opinions.
As for the Tory and Labour prima-donnas sulking on the sidelines the sight of the public responding to an honest, mature debate where people say what they mean rather than recite slogans engaging the public might just persuade them to change their minds and take part.