Corbyn and May: not as bad as you think

The upcoming UK General Election is often depicted as a clash of personalities, and bad personalities at that. Some in the media paint Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a hapless Commie, blundering towards certain failure. Others depict prime minister Theresa May as a hatchet-faced Thatcher 2.0: robotic and incapable of dealing with the public.

Last night’s televised debate, The Battle For Number 10, was a welcome reality check – neither politician lived up to these caricatures. Corbyn, the man described as chaotic, was very calm and collected. His answers were to the point, honest and intelligent. As much as Jeremy Paxman – a boor with Tourette’s who used to be a journalist – tried to fluster Corbyn with interruptions and ridiculous questions, Corbyn refused to take the bait. He came off, to borrow May’s favoured phrase, as quite strong and stable. He even got an endorsement from Nigel Farage, who tweeted: ‘I may not agree with @jeremycorbyn but he came across as being totally sincere. Paxman didn’t score any goals.’

May likewise did not live up to her media caricature as a robot with a stick up its backside. She looked relatively comfortable, no doubt thanks to her impeccable media training. This skill can be frustrating in a politician, but it served May well against Paxman’s attempts to steamroller her into a corner. She seemed confident. When Paxman grilled her about her suggestion that no deal with the EU would be better than a bad deal, the audience cheered her rather than him. May knows her strength lies in her commitment to Brexit — or at least to the public’s still strong desire for Brexit.

Over the evening it became clear that Corbyn is better under media pressure than May. She came across as nervous when she was heckled and interrogated by members of the audience. And her refusal to debate Corbyn head-on — meaning the programme was weirdly split into two halves, with the leaders never meeting in front of the cameras — looks bad in the context of the election debate. But both of them stood their ground, and in the process confirmed that the media narrative about this election and its two key candidates might not be all that accurate.

Of course, the content of their answers, and their policies, is rather beige. But last night’s debate did come to life at times — no, not when Paxman was ignorantly shouting over Corbyn or May, but when Brexit came up. This is what animates people, and it animates, if only by proxy, the party leaders, too. A better interrogator than Paxman would have noted this and focused on the substance of Brexit and what it means for the future. That’s the big issue, after all. Perhaps that is what we should have before election day next week — a live, head-to-head TV debate on Brexit and the importance of democracy. Now that’s something people would tune in to, and relish.

Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked. Follow her on Twitter: @Ella_M_Whelan

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