It has been a long weekend of second halves for me. I only saw the second half of the FA Cup Final on Saturday and the second half of the Huddersfield v Reading playoff this afternoon. And tonight I only watched the second half of the Sky News programme May v Corbyn Live: The Battle for Number 10. Unlike the football matches, this piece of general election programming made me rather angry for a number reasons. Let me count the ways.
- First of all, it was in no way May vs Corbyn. They did not ‘square off’ in any sense. There was no ‘battle’ or any exchange of words between them. The programme was a misnomer.
- And that misnomer provided cover for Mrs May’s political cowardice. That neither Mrs May nor Mr Corbyn have taken part in the party leaders’ debate is, as broadcaster Robert Peston described it, pathetic. Politicians seeking to lead us should put themselves into challenging, unscripted situations with their opponents.
- My annoyance was not only semantic. The substance of the discussion was anger-inducing too. Because, while it was slightly amusing to watch Mr Paxman try to skewer Mrs May by asking her the same question over and over again, it was not at all enlightening.
Paxman began by drawing attention to Mrs May’s central contradiction, which is that she campaigned for Remain before she was handed the task of delivering Britain’s exit from the EU. Paxman spent quite a while asking “when did you change your mind?”… but that is not the central political question of the moment!
It has been nearly a full year since the question Whether Brexit? has been answered. The big political question since then has been What Kind of Brexit? Mrs May does not appear to have an answer to that question, so she was very lucky that Mr Paxman did not ask it.
Instead he repeatedly asked whether the Prime Minister would be prepared to walk away from negotiations with the EU. In response she repeated the truism that ‘No Deal Is Better Than A Bad Deal’ and Jeremy Paxman never managed to ask her what her definition of a bad deal might be. He was so intent of trying to create a shareable, memorable TV moment in homage to his famous Michael Howard Newsnight interview, that he did not interrogate the Prime Minister’s vision of what a good Brexit might look like.
Poor night for "Jeremy Paxman", who is now a kind of celebrity pantomime act.
Both May and Corbyn emerging unscathed.
— Jason Cowley (@JasonCowleyNS) May 29, 2017
This has been a long election campaign and yet any substantial discussion over what kind of Brexit the next government will pursue has been absent. This is of course because it is such a hard issue to deal with, which in turn means that neither has presented a coherent strategy to the electorate. But politicians should be up to the challenge.
When the Prime Minister called a general election, she said that she needed to be in a strong political position when she began the Brexit negotiations. But that only makes sense if she had, or intended to, set out a clear position on Brexit before the election. This would have allowed the British electorate to at least endorse her approach (or an alternative set out by one of the other parties). It would, in turn, have sent a clear signal to Brussels about what kind of deal would and would not pass muster in the British parliament.
So it is strange that there is so little policy substance offered to answer this crucial political challenge. I suspect we will get all the way to Election Day and beyond without becoming any wiser. I feel let down by everyone in this regard: by the Tories, by Labour and by the Media, all of whom could have elevated this debate in such a way that our vote on 8th June was a meaningful policy choice over what kind of Brexit we want. Instead, I imagine people will vote tribally, vote on feelings, and vote on who has the marginally less tainted ‘brand’. High-minded types tend to scorn that kind of gut-vote, but that’s all I have to go on this time around, and it is that which makes me most angry.