What is the debate about televised debates really about? Despite what both the BBC and ITV are saying in their lobbying of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, hardly anyone seriously expects that the Brexit debate between the two will be ratings gold, particularly as it will be up against very strong competition on the other side, whichever channel ends up winning the right to host the debate.
As I explained in my column last week week, the real prize, at least as far as Corbyn and the broadcasters are concerned, is that having a Brexit debate now makes it more likely that there will be televised debates at the next election.
Both channels have tried similar tactics to woo the political parties. Both were originally making bold arguments as to why their debate will do better numbers: the BBC’s argument is that people watching the finale of Doctor Who and the Strictly Come Dancing semi-final will carry on watching, while ITV’s argument is that people planning to watch the final of I’m A Celebrity will tune in early. There’s a grain of truth in this but in practice it’s basically a question about whether the two leaders will be better off using their best material in the first ten minutes (to grab anyone who doesn’t immediately switch over after Strictly) or the last (to make a favourable impression on anyone who is worried about missing the beginning of I’m A Celebrity).
The two broadcasters also tweaked their formats in a bid to lock down the two. The BBC originally proposed an audience of 20 worthies, who will quiz May and Corbyn on the withdrawal agreement (an arrangement favoured by May). ITV proposed an hour-long one-on-one debate with a moderator (an arrangement favoured by Corbyn).
Although both political parties are making public arguments about ratings, the real motivation is to secure the most favourable format. The most likely outcome is still that neither side blinks and that the debate never actually happens.
But I’m not so sure that either side is backing the right horse. As far as Corbyn’s preferred head-to-head format goes: we have a pretty good idea what happens when May and Corbyn debate one-on-one without a studio audience, as it happens every week in the House of Commons: Corbyn tends to win, but not spectacularly so.
The Labour leader has already got what he needs out of the “Brexit debate”: another stick to beat May or whoever her successor is over the head with should they try to get out of televised debates next time. He has accepted her challenge and whether or not they happen, the issue of whose fault that is sufficiently muddied for Labour to benefit from it all.
In my view, he’s marginally better off if they don’t happen: unlike in 2017, when his parliamentary performances meant that people had forgotten how well he does in a hustings format, it is now well-established that Corbyn is a stilted Commons performer but has a deft touch at a hustings. He can’t really win anything as there is no election and whatever he says on Brexit is going to cause someone in the Labour party to complain.
As for Theresa May, the BBC format, which she prefers, looks well-suited to expose her weaknesses. We know that she tends to struggle with audience questions while Corbyn tends to do very well in that format. It was with the live audience that he had his best performances as far as the televised setpieces went at the last election and it was with live audiences that he did so well in the hustings when he ran for the Labour leadership.
Yes, half of the panel will be supportive of May’s deal, but the Prime Minister tends to struggle even with sympathetic questions. During Prime Ministers’ Questions and in the chamber, she is often caught flatfooted even by softball questions if they don’t have an obvious “our economic plan is working” scripted response built into the question. (This week, for instance, she fumbled a supportive question from Anna Soubry about the need for more female leaders during a statement on the G20.) I would expect May to lose either format but the BBC one carries slightly more risk.
But May, like Corbyn, has already got what she needs out of this debate. The discussion about debates has drained some of the oxygen from what would otherwise be the only story at Westminster this week: that the withdrawal agreement is miles away from being able to pass the House of Commons and she will face pressure to go when it is defeated.