The odds are still against a televised May/Corbyn debate on the Brexit deal

Come and have a go if EU think you’re hard enough.

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Deal done: the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union have been signed off by the EU27 and now go forward for ratification in the European Parliament, which is generally expected to go off without a hitch; and in the Westminster Parliament, where it...isn’t. 

There are a variety of lists of would-be dissenters: Patrick’s, which has been running the longest, also has the smallest number of rebels on it, as the whips tend to succeed in pulling one or two rebels back from the brink. But even our very conservative estimate puts the total number of rebels at 88. Defeat looks inevitable. 

Theresa May’s plan is to try to sell the withdrawal agreement directly to the country through phone-ins, speeches and rallies. And according to the Telegraph, she will challenge Jeremy Corbyn to a televised debate on the withdrawal agreement.  

Although Downing Street has yet to confirm the rumour – or, to my knowledge, formally invite Corbyn – Labour have pre-emptively taken up the challenge, issuing a statement that, “Jeremy would relish a head to head debate with Theresa May about her botched Brexit deal and the future of our country.”

Last night I was very sceptical that Corbyn would ever agree to a debate on the withdrawal agreement, going so far as to promise to ingest whatever banned substance the leader’s office would have to on to agree to one live on TV. (I’m told that on Monday mornings they prefer Malteasers.) When you’re in a hole stop digging, etc... but to be frank I still don’t think it will happen.

The most important part of that statement isn’t that Corbyn would “relish” a head to head debate with May but the last five words about its scope: “And the future of our country”. May will want a narrow, detail-heavy debate on the area where she is strong – the content and implications of the withdrawal agreement – and that’s a debate she would have a very good chance of winning. Corbyn will want a traditional Question Time style format that ranges across the whole of government policy. That’s a format that he does very well – and a debate that May would have next to no chance of winning.

Don’t forget that the 2015 general election debates took months of negotiations after David Cameron very cleverly agreed the principle that debates should happen and then did his utmost to block the one-on-one debate that Ed Miliband wanted. May doesn’t have months and I suspect that given the choice between having a debate on Corbyn’s terms or not at all, May will go for the latter. 

In any case, both of them have already got what they wanted. For Corbyn, it – along with Sky News’ ongoing Make Debates Happen campaign – makes it that much harder to believe that the next Conservative leader will be able to swerve the election debates as Theresa May did. For May, it’s another way to run down the clock until the big vote on 12 December, and the hope that, after parliamentary defeat, the political landscape will shift in favour of the withdrawal agreement. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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