5 things we learned from the leaders’ debates for the smaller parties

“I’m not Natalie.”

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When Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are away, what conversations happen among the smaller party leaders? Do they all agree about how nefarious the government is and hopeless the opposition is and then hold hands and form a progressive alliance?

Not likely.

Here are the five things we learned from ITV’s debate between SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron and Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas. A panel that ended rather frostily, with Wood refusing to shake hands with Nuttall, and only the most cursory of handshakes between Farron and Lucas.

1 Paul Nuttall thinks all women look the same

The Ukip leader addressed two out of three women on the panel as “Natalie”. None of them are called Natalie. Perhaps he was thinking of former Green party leader Natalie Bennett. Or the Scot Nats. Or the actor Natalie Wood, instead of Leanne Wood. Either way, a massive and enjoyable gaffe from a man who will never, try as he might, be mistaken for a Nigel.


2 “I agree with Tim”

The phrase “I agree with Tim” popped up a number of times during the debate. And not just as a hashtag on the Lib Dem press office’s Twitter feed. Nicola Sturgeon said it, as did – believe it or not – Paul Nuttall. The phrase is reminiscent of the “I agree with Nick” debates of Cleggmania prior to the 2010 election, but also indicates a problem for the Lib Dems. If they have Sturgeon on one side and Nuttall on the other agreeing with them, they’re back in the position they were in before the 2015 election when they were so badly trounced – middle-of-the-road is not an election winner, as many senior Lib Dems concluded following the election result, after a campaign of trying to be Labour with a brain, and the Tories with a heart. And even if Farronmania became a thing, it wouldn’t even get them to small coalition party status this time round.

3 Not a good look for Labour and the Tories...

The received Westminster wisdom is that there is little point in Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May taking part in these debates. It is pointless making themselves vulnerable alongside leaders who have nothing to lose – or lowering themselves to the same level as the smaller parties in Parliament, the argument goes. Perhaps, but in an election where a thumping Tory victory is thought to be a foregone conclusion, and a divided Labour is an unattractive choice, these party leaders certainly sound refreshing. It’s considered “safer” by voters to back parties that will never take power when they know what the election result will be, and strong performances, particularly by good media performers like Caroline Lucas, will boost this sentiment.

It didn’t help matters that both Labour and the Conservative press offices tweeted along to the debate, picking apart the answers, despite their leaders refusing to take part:

4 …but this is very much a general election of two personalities

Unlike Cleggmania and the ensuing coalition in 2010, and the multi-party excitement in the build-up to the 2015 election, the debate highlighted that this year’s general election is only about two parties: the Tories and Labour. With the polls predicting a stonking majority, the smaller parties’ proposals feel like they have less weight than previous years because, for the first time in a while, there’s no prospect of coalition or minority government.

And it’s not only about the two main parties. It’s about two individuals in particular. The Conservative campaign is running a presidential bid for government, calling itself “Theresa May’s Team”, and playing down the party’s name, whereas Labour’s campaign bus and many of its MPs are attempting to do the opposite, in response to Corbyn’s abysmal personal ratings. There are only two people who are really shaping the election result, and neither of them was here.

5 It’s not all about Brexit

Strangely, considering two of these politicians (Farron and Nuttall) have hinged their campaigns on the subject of Brexit, all the party leaders were least convincing when they were discussing the B-word. Perhaps it’s because the “Re-Leaver” theory (that many of those who voted Remain have accepted the referendum result and don’t want the result reversed) resonates, or maybe it simply feels stale to stage a rerun of the referendum campaign, but their ideas on housing, climate change, education and health were more compelling than their stance on how (or whether) the UK should leave the European Union.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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