May 2, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
From the very start of this General Election campaign, Theresa May has insisted that it is about who leads this country into the Brexit negotiations. It is about giving her the biggest mandate possible to represent the country in the most difficult challenge any British Prime Minister has had since the World Wars. She has pointed out that she and Jeremy Corbyn have debated plenty of times during Prime Minister’s Questions over the past year, and so there is no need for televised debates during the campaign.
In analysing this decision, it might be worth knowing that when she stood (unsuccessfully) for Parliament in 1987 and 1992, in safe Labour seats, she declined to take part in competitive hustings against her opponents (a sort of ‘Question Time’ for election candidates). Instead, she focused on canvassing, which is her preferred way of doing politics.
That said, canvassing, which involves conversations with the ‘ordinary working people’ she says she wants to help, is very different from what May is doing now. This is to travel around the country to carefully controlled rallies populated mainly by party activists and speak at them, maybe answering carefully controlled questions. The other day, pictures were released from a factory in Leeds she had spoken at, immediately followed by employees of that company tweeting that they had left when it was held and the speech was made at near 7pm, and they didn’t recognise any other employee in the pictures.
There is a reason for this. The general public can’t be trusted. If you want to see how that is the case – google Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy 2010, or even Tony Blair and Sharon Storer 2001. Election campaigns are normally stage-managed, but Theresa May’s election campaign needs to be particularly stage-managed, because of who she is and what she is like.
Journalists who meet with her are met with constantly repeated sound-bites and little else. She answers the question she wants to answer and nothing else. Whatever has happened during this campaign comes back to ‘strong and stable leadership’ with no attempt to engage with the question or the issues around it. So, when Labour point out the problems in the NHS and the problems with education and the problems with social care the answer is always that only strong and stable leadership will manage the economy to help those problems most.
In my many years of following politics, I have never seen a moment of warmth from Theresa May. She doesn’t really do listening and she doesn’t really do empathy. It was something that David Cameron and Tony Blair did well, engage with people. May doesn’t even try to do it, so to have her trying to talk to real people could result in embarrassing moments that the Tory Party will want to avoid. They have nothing to gain from it.
Which brings me to the leadership debates. They were brought in during the 2010 election as a bit of a novelty when the result was uncertain and repeated in 2015. The 2015 debates featured a lot of Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon making good TV but very little actual discussion of the political issues involved. They were just a case of repeated pithy one-liners from the politicians and audience soundbites which added very little to the debate. There was no room for nuanced or complex answers, which politicians need to be able to give to not be hostages to fortune in the future. They also told us nothing about the result, which looked from the debates like a Labour/SNP/Lib Dem coalition but in fact turned out to be a Conservative majority.
Theresa May simply has nothing to gain from taking part in a debate. Because she is almost certainly going to win, every single other person knows that she is the only person who will be held to what she says in them. She will be faced by Jeremy Corbyn (highly debate-trained by his two leadership campaigns) promising the equivalent of a new pony for each child, knowing he will never have to find a way to pay for it. She will be faced by Tim Farron trying to force her to make promises over Brexit that you simply cannot make when you just don’t know what you will achieve in the negotiations. She will be faced by Nicola Sturgeon asking her for ‘Yes or No’ on a Scottish referendum, when the actual answer is ‘when it’s the right time’. As I have explained in my blogs last week, Theresa May needs ultimate flexibility after June 8th, so forcing her to make any commitments she will be held to that she doesn’t want to make will massively hurt her ability to govern.
But most of all, Theresa May has nothing to gain from taking part in a debate because as a Party Leader she is fundamentally ill-equipped to do well in one. She is just not that type of leader. She is not a communicator, she is a manager. She stayed at the Home Office for longer than anyone in a century because of her ability to manage through the many crises that hit any Home Secretary. Those crises didn’t call for soundbites, they called for competent leadership. May knows that any time she is compared to Jeremy Corbyn, she looks like the more competent leader. That is enough for her.