It’s on? Theresa May has formally challenged Jeremy Corbyn to a televised debate over the withdrawal agreement in an interview with the Sun. That the Labour leader has already accepted (sort of) the challenge means that the interview lacks some of the force it might have otherwise had, and it still isn’t certain the debate will go ahead. Not only do the two candidates have to reach an agreement over the format and whatnot, but the broadcasters have to find space for it on a night in which some of their biggest draws, from Doctor Who to I’m A Celebrity to Strictly Come Dancing to David Attenborough’s latest series, Dynasties. But say it does happen…who benefits?
The more I think about it, the more and more it seems like a terrible idea on Downing Street’s part. Theresa May can’t think on her feet, doesn’t hide it well when she is avoiding the question and has to defend a very real and very tangible withdrawal agreement. Jeremy Corbyn is not a deft parliamentary performer or anything like it but he does very well in a hustings format and will be able to very easily occupy the fantasy Brexit position from which it is easiest to snipe at May’s deal.
More importantly, let’s imagine that through some combination of great coaching and astonishing good luck Theresa May puts in the performance of her life – she charms rather than glares at the crowd, deals well with the unexpected, beats Corbyn so hard that Karl Marx feels it, etc. Not particularly likely but let’s just run with it as an idea. It’s not like it’s going to make, say, Peter Bone think “you know what, maybe the backstop isn’t so bad”. It’s not going to convince the DUP that the backstop is a price worth paying. And it’s not going to make vulnerable Conservatives in Leave marginals feel any better about the deal because no one who hasn’t made up their mind about Brexit will watch it voluntarily.
Ultimately the only way that any Conservative leader is going to pass the withdrawal agreement through this parliament is with a sizable chunk of Labour votes. Every public clash with Corbyn on the issue makes it politically harder for the Labour leadership to provide it directly and even more risky for Labour backbenchers to provide it indirectly. May’s problem isn’t that she is losing some kind of highfalutin battle of ideas – it is that she is miles adrift of having the votes necessary to pass the withdrawal agreement. Losing the debate won’t help that, and winning it may make it impossible.