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EU referendum debate: Sadiq Khan and Ruth Davidson give Remain the punch it needs

The battle-hardened London mayor and Scottish Tory leader relentlessly exposed Leave's mendacity. 

Throughout the EU referendum campaign, a recurring theme has been that the Remain side lacks "passion". Not tonight. At the BBC's Wembley Arena debate, the triumvirate of Sadiq Khan, Ruth Davidson and Frances O'Grady gave the pro-EU side the punch it has lacked. They remorselessly pummelled Leave's unchanged line-up of Boris Johnson, Gisela Stuart and Andrea Leadsom over their campaign's mendacity.

O'Grady spoke with the authority of a TUC general secretary, representing more than six million workers ("If you don't believe the experts, listen to the shop floor"). But it was Khan and Davidson, battle-hardened from their respective campaigns (London mayoral and Scottish referendum), who were the stand-out performers. While avoiding crudely personalised attacks on Johnson they relentlessly exposed his inconsistencies. When Khan called his mayoral predecessor out on the "big fat lie" that Turkey is set to join the EU, Johnson wore the smirk of a man who knows he is dissembling. The loudest applause of the night came when Khan brandished the Leave campaign's infamous immigration leaflet and denounced it as "Project Hate". His energy, nearly 19 hours into a Ramadan fast, was remarkable. 

Though the Leave side again excelled at message discipline, urging voters to "take back control" at every opportunity, they committed two notable gaffes. First, Leadsom refused to pledge to return a £600,000 donation from a former BNP member. Then Stuart was caught out when asked how much Leave would reduce immigration by. "What we said is we would take back control," she helplessly pleaded. Johnson was on stronger ground, sticking tightly to Leave's script and ending with the rallying cry to make this Thursday "independence day". 

Remain lacks a slogan to rival "take back control" but Khan and Davidson hammered its closing message that withdrawal would be "irreversible" (one strategists say polls strongly) and its defining theme that Leave "has no plan". Though the pro-EU side's strongest suit remains the economy, two of its most potent interventions came on security. Khan recalled how the European Arrest Warrant enabled the deportation of one of the 21 July London bombers from Italy. In an extended peroration, Davidson declared: "The other side have said throughout this debate that they don't like experts but when it comes to keeping our country safe and secure I want to listen to the experts.  So when the head of GCHQ says we are safer in the EU I listen. When five former NATO chiefs say we are safer in the EU I listen. When the head of Europol who is a Brit says we are safer in the EU I listen. When the head of MI5 and MI6 says we are safer in the EU I listen."

Few minds will have been changed by tonight's debate. The relentless claims and counter-claims are only likely to have left the undecided even more perplexed. But Stuart unwittingly revealed what could be Leave's fatal weakness when she asked at the opening: "If we were not in the EU would we join it?" The problem for Leave is that we are. For the unpersuaded, the status quo is always the safest option. "Trust us and it'll all be fine, that's not good enough," said Davidson. "If you vote to go on Thursday, you cannot change your mind on Friday." It is the risk aversion of the British electorate that will likely deliver Remain victory. But tonight Khan and Davidson supplied pugnacity, too. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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