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May’s debate absence has cost the Conservatives dearly

Image credit: The Guardian (via Jeff Overs/PA/BBC)
Image credit: The Guardian (via Jeff Overs/PA/BBC)
Image credit: The Guardian (via Jeff Overs/PA/BBC)

Recent polling brings a hopeful vision of the future for the Labour Party. The enormous Conservative lead is shrinking. Last week it got down to a single-digit figure. Of course, the trend has to continue for Labour to be on course for electoral success, but for now, the Conservatives must surely be rattled.

Over the last few days we’ve seen the leaders of the main parties appear on television to make their case to the voters. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were on Channel 4, but never spoke to one another, taking it in turns to receive questions from an audience and an interrogation from Jeremy Paxman. Despite the Labour leader’s pleas, May refuses to debate with him one-on-one. The forthcoming Question Time edition, held in York tonight, will be the same.

May has provided her reasons for for not appearing in a debate broadcast to the nation in what she herself has described as the most important election of our times – four of them, to be precise. First, she said that voters have seen her sparring with the Leader of the Opposition in the Commons already. There would be no need to see her doing it again. Second, it would be much better to speak to ordinary voters and answer their questions directly. Besides, May adds, the emotional rhetoric and tit-for-tat exchanges seen in televised debates doesn’t really give the public much more information on the real matters. Finally, making an appearance would distract the Prime Minister from the great task at hand, preparing Great Britain to get out of the European Union.

None of these reasons will wash anymore. May doesn’t speak to ordinary voters as much as she would have us believe. She holds her rallies in factories and industrial complexes after-hours, to audiences composed of party activists and journalists. Questions from the media are sidestepped and dodged. May rarely answers in comprehensive sentences, preferring a death-by-soundbite approach. “Strong and stable” this, “coalition of chaos” that. On Channel 4 a few nights ago, she even resorted to Cameron-era slogans, mentioning the economic situation her party inherited, the “difficult decisions” that have been made and that, to achieve anything in government, it can “only” be done “with a strong economy.”

From the sounds of things, it’s a wonder that anyone on the ground can make sense of the Conservatives’ plans at all. Confronted by angry voters demanding action, May can only offer vague ideas about how her party would help, so vague that one Plymouth newspaper struggles to print anything remarkable about her visit to the city.

Last night she sent the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, in her place. It was not only cowardly on the part of her superior, but cruel: Rudd lost her father on Monday. She took the flak that her leader deserved to receive. Almost every other figure on stage brought it up, calling out May’s gutlessness. Rudd was the Conservative lamb to the slaughter.

May’s supporters will play down the affair. It was only ninety minutes of being on television – most of those minutes were spent on hearing from the other leaders. There’s very little substantial debate to be had when seven other debaters are barking at you and each other. Meanwhile, our dear Prime Minister has been meeting common Britons. But May’s no-show at last night’s debate is her greatest mistake in the campaign so far. Her absence shows just how the Conservatives have taken the election for granted and their victory as a given.

To their credit, the Conservatives have enjoyed fantastic odds in this contest. Facing divided opposition headed by a fragmented Labour Party and leading in the polling of which most politicians can only dream, a stunning victory seemed inevitable at the start of the campaign. So, why not call an election? Why not seal that majority, ripe for the plunder? Winning in June, May could get the Commons support both for her Brexit plans (whatever they are) and for the radical policies that broke from the metropolitan Thatcherism of her predecessor.

So confident were the Conservatives, not just in their forthcoming success but that it would of historic proportions, that they have taken the electorate for granted. They were prepared to penalise their traditional voters and expect them vote ‘Conservative’ regardless. They haven’t bothered to provide the costings for their manifesto in the way that Labour, whom the Conservatives regularly call out for financial irresponsibility, has done. Instead, the money will come from the growing economy that the Conservatives promise to provide – somehow. They’ve got it all worked out, they say, but there’s no need to let anyone else know.

Crucially, the party has put all its attention and promotion on their leader, presented as the competent negotiator that the country needs in a post-Brexit world. Whichever member of the Cabinet is riding in the campaign buses, it’s May’s photograph and signature on the side. How it will suffer, then, when that sole asset is revealed not to be so strong and stable after all.

Labour has made improvements as its leader has enjoyed more opportunities to speak for himself about his ideas and release a manifesto that appeals to long-held public beliefs – nationalising services, higher wages and so on. But their gains are largely down to Conservative blunders. The social care U-turn, the endless soundbites and now, worst of all, ditching the public debate. May believed she could win the debate without even attending it, but it tells the voters that she is too busy and important to engage in any discourse and take criticism.

All the proclamations that the nation’s leader would rather connect with the ordinary voter and is busy working on the Brexit master plan are worthless now; the guise of strength and stability has been defaced. Even if her party returns to office after June 8th, its contemptible attitude to the public is crystal clear and will no doubt have repercussions in the future.