Jacob F. Farr

Naked Politics Blogger 

During a Q&A session a day or two ago in Bath, it was clear that all was not right with the Prime Minister. Theresa May has always been perceived as unshakable, the Iron Lady MKII, who would rarely appear in public as Home Secretary – but who when required exemplified grace and gave speeches in a clinical nature and oozed an aura of control.

So, it is puzzling that we find ourselves where we are today, with May’s refusal to debate. However, it becomes less so when you ponder the fact that May has always been sheltered in the past. As Home Secretary she had some hairy moments but always managed to come through bruised and not battered. She was helped during her time in that role by the headline grabbers elsewhere in the party. Cameron and Osborne – and others – allowed May to make cuts and pursue avenues that the European Court of Human Rights thought inappropriate. During the leadership election that followed Cameron’s resignation, May was again protected by being surrounded by fellow Conservatives, never really facing anyone who was truly adverse to her.

May is untested on a national scale. She has not faced the scrutiny that Corbyn has up until this point, and perhaps there is more behind her reasoning for not joining the debate tonight than the four reasons she gave yesterday. Nonetheless, I believe we should at least look at her arguments, in order to truly understand the whole picture.

1. Because she debates at PMQ’s every week

This was her original statement, right at the start of the campaign, when she turned down the opportunity to do TV debates. It is a valid point, however, the viewing figures for PMQ’s when everyone is at their work is far lower than a national debate which is televised after everyone is at home. PMQ’s are often overly rehearsed and there is little excitement or scope for something interesting to be said or debated. I accept the same argument could be made for televised debates however the environment is always more volatile.

2. Because debates are a bit pointless

Here’s a quote from the Guardian’s live blog on Wednesday; a report quoting academics in 2015 that assessed how useful TV debates were for voters:

“The findings we have presented show that the 2015 TV election debates performed a crucially important civic role, reaching sections of the population least likely to be touched by the rest of the campaign; helping citizens to acquire the information they need to make meaningful choices; and thereby boosting the electorate’s confidence. Whatever their strategic effects might have been in terms of inter-party competition, the debates served democratic citizenship.”

3.Because she is more interested in meeting members of the public

This is a lovely soundbite. To an extent it will resonate with the electorate and is a valid point if you plan to reach as many people during your day of campaigning than you would if say you took part in the debate. Let’s not forget that every day the other candidates are out there up and down the country campaigning face to face. What May is doing is not enormously different from the others, but one difference is that the others are taking an evening off to reach a far larger audience. One thing that goes in her favour by meeting the public is that one gaffe with one voter loses one vote; a car crash performance on TV could lose thousands. The question that must be asked is how do you reach more voters?

4.Because she is too busy preparing for Brexit talks

I do not understand this point. May tells us that Corbyn is more interested in TV debates than preparing for Brexit! Sorry, what? This comment may be no more than a simple attempt to change the rhetoric of her campaign to focus solely on Brexit and her role in leading us through the difficult talks ahead. If so I get that – it makes political sense to play that game – but it does not tackle the question she was asked and that was about her refusal to appear at the debate. Brexit and immigration were debated last night and May knew they would be. May also knows that her plans would fall under more intense scrutiny on television against her rivals and that Brexit would be a key theme of the discussion. It is bewildering to me then that she would make such a comment but then not be prepared to face her peers with regards to her plans.

May made some good points for not debating Corbyn. However she has not answered the question of democratic legitimacy, of giving the electorate the opportunity to see you perform under pressure; after all this election is about who represents Britain during the divorce talks with the EU. It should not however be a surprise to anyone that she had refused to take part. It was a lose-lose situation for her, one where if she turned up she would have acted as lightning rod for the other parties as Rudd had, as well as taking the risk of having a huge blunder after the Tories had just steadied the ship. May looked unbelievably weak yesterday as she awkwardly laughed her way around the barrage of questions. Her squeak when losing her composure under pressure for performing a u-turn, showed that she could crumble in the wrong environment; it could be suicidal to appear on television.

May played the right card for her campaign but not for democracy. No one in their right mind who is wobbling in the polls would appear in a time of turmoil and she comes across as too weird and not relatable. No one should be surprised by her decision, nor should they be surprised about the real reasoning behind such a move.

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Last Update: April 27, 2018