The normally boisterous newsrooms that produce the UK’s right-wing press would have had good reason to be slightly more subdued this morning after the release of YouGov’s shock forecast that the Tories may not secure a majority on 8 June. Though the prediction feels like an outlier, the closing gap between the Conservatives and Labour reflects an undeniably good campaign for the latter.
Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party almost two years ago, the best efforts of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph have been focused on painting him as a threat – a threat to the UK’s economy, its security and its cultural homogeneity. He was the big bad terrorist-sympathising wolf at the door (if also somehow a bungling incompetent), and only the iron resolve of Theresa May could keep him out. That message was played so consistently that it seemingly managed to penetrate the minds of a UK public that most of the time pays little attention to politics.
The thing is that during the campaign, a sizeable chunk of the population starts paying a bit more attention to the party leaders on TV. And on our screens in recent weeks Corbyn has looked more like a slightly bedraggled, if much-loved, family pooch than an apex predator.
This couldn’t have been clearer on Tuesday evening, when Corbyn turned up on The One Show’s sofa. As with a similar appearance by May and her husband, Philip, the softball questions barely touched on policy or politics. But where the Prime Minister and her husband looked like they were trying desperately to appear normal, Corbyn looked like he actually was, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. How could a man with such an enduring fascination with manhole covers, that cheeky wink, and a gift of home-made jam, be a threat?
In this light, Labour’s strategy of focusing on TV and radio and excluding newspapers during the campaign looks inspired. Not only do impartiality rules mean that the biases typical of UK newspapers do less damage here, but with almost every appearance he challenges a media narrative carefully built up in print. His ease with interviewers also lessens the potential impact of further attacks on his character. It’s easier to trust the walking, talking evidence in front of your eyes than the copy under your nose.
So Corbyn’s decision to turn up to this evening’s debate, though risky, even with May absent, makes even more sense, given the boost he’s received from getting his face out there.
Meanwhile, May is dealing with the same phenomenon, but in reverse. The right-wing press championed her as the “strong and stable” reincarnation of Thatcher, and it worked wonders until she had to get a grip on manifesto slip-ups and expose herself to both eager interviewers like Andrew Neil and members of the public in the street. It’s not so much the performances of the two leaders compared to each other – though recently Corbyn has been coming out ahead – but more the fact that Corbyn looks better than we’ve been told to believe he is, and May looks far worse.
Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to question whether Corbyn is suitable to be PM, from his past associations with a range of questionable political organisations, through to his inability to command the support of his MPs.
But by crying so long and hard about the lefty wolf at the door, right-wing newspapers, inadvertently, may have handed Corbyn a poll-boosting chance to confound expectations. It may not win him the election, but it’s a lesson for the press that they aren’t quite powerful enough to define a candidate all on their own.