Jeremy Corbyn’s late decision to participate in the BBC’s election debate injected some interest and potential excitement into an event that had risked being ignored.
With the polls narrowing in Labour’s favour and with the party leader having performed well in the campaign so far, he hoped to maintain the momentum and increase pressure on the Conservatives. Despite speculation throughout the day about the intentions of Theresa May, the prime minister stuck with her original decision to stay away and send the home secretary, Amber Rudd, to represent the Conservatives in her place. Corbyn and Rudd also faced the representatives of the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP and Plaid Cymru in the debate.
The six questions put to the politicians by the invited audience were fairly predictable, covering living conditions, Brexit and immigration, public finances, national security, climate change and leadership. There were no real surprises, with Corbyn and other left-leaning politicians – Caroline Lucas of the Greens, Angus Robertson of the SNP and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, as well as Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats – repeatedly condemning the government for its cuts to welfare and public services.
Paul Nuttall of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) came under frequent attack from other leaders, while making his party’s stock points on Brexit, the necessity of immigration controls, and terrorism.
Rudd generally found herself in the position of defending the government’s record, although she also launched a number of attacks on Corbyn, particularly over what she called his “fantasy economics” and his votes against anti-terror laws. Corbyn came under occasional attack from Nuttall on terrorism. Pressed by the moderator, Mishal Husain, Corbyn also stumbled in defining what he meant by a “fair” immigration system.
Corbyn didn’t make the most of his late entry into the debate, although he didn’t make any obvious gaffes either. Of the smaller parties’ leaders, Lucas performed best, setting out a clear liberal-progressive vision of a fairer society, based on freedom of movement, opposition to Trident, and combating climate change. But it will probably have little effect, as the Greens are leaking votes to Labour, which now appears to be attracting the bulk of the anti-Conservative vote in England and Wales.
Was May right not to turn up? She received inevitable and trenchant criticism from the other leaders, particularly from Farron at the end, although not so much from Corbyn. That was perhaps surprising given the fanfare that surrounded Corbyn’s late decision to take part. He might have been expected to make more of May’s weakness in staying away.
In reality, May was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. By not taking part, she was accused of running scared from the voters. But if she had turned up, she could have been accused of dancing to Corbyn’s tune, being seen to follow his lead in participating rather than following her own judgement. It would have been mocked as another u-turn.
As it was, the format of the debate would not have played to May’s strengths. She would have been angrily assailed by the other leaders and found herself having to shout to make herself heard or completely drowned out. She doesn’t have the type of combativeness in debate that Rudd possesses and used to some effect here. All in all, despite some embarrassing barbs about her non-appearance, May was probably better off sticking with her original decision.