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Theresa May’s TV performance showed how her position has weakened

The audience's open laughter proved that the Tory manifesto has damaged the PM in the public's eyes.

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman last night. How’d they get on?

The newspaper headlines favour the PM, as you’d expect. The Telegraph majors on the Labour leader’s questions over his support for the IRA and his refusal to countenance drone strikes: “Corbyn ducks terror challenge” is their splash. The Guardian opts for his tussle with the other Jeremy over sections of the Labour manifesto that are to Corbyn’s right: “Corbyn tells Paxman: ‘I’m no dictator’ in TV debate” is their take. The Times opts for Theresa May’s one applause line of the night  – “no deal is better than a bad deal”, etc. – with “May woos working class with tough line on Brexit”. The i goes with the studiously neutral “May and Corbyn endure bruising TV debate”.

There was no instant poll of who won so you’ll have to settle for my impression, which was that Corbyn had the better of the exchanges. He had all of the fluency you’d expect from someone who has honed his craft at this format over 34 years and had largely clamped down on his biggest weakness in Q&As – the flashes of anger that have marred some of his TV appearances were nowhere to be seen. Although Diane Abbott’s remark this weekend that her views had changed is closer to the truth as far as Corbyn and the IRA are concerned, his line that he met with Republican politicians not as a sympathiser but as an agent of the peace process held up well in front of the studio audience. (Though that the most-viewed campaign video on Facebook is one attacking Corbyn on security will trouble Labour.)

The PM did a better job than I expected she would and bored the dissent out of the audience most of the time. It wasn’t great television but it was effective, though she would do well to eradicate that icy stare she gives difficult questioners before facing a studio audience on Friday. The public tend to see politics as a customer service job and no-one likes being stared daggers at over the till. 

More troubling for CCHQ were the open laughter that her answers on everything other than Brexit received. In my write-up yesterday I likened it to the creaking of a rope bridge over a large ravine. It’s clear that May’s manifesto has damaged her in the eyes of the public but we won’t be clear as to whether or not she has scratched her paintwork or written the vehicle off in entirely. The situation is all the more damaging to the PM as there was a comfortable concrete bypass over the same ravine: a manifesto majoring on, say, a tax cut or something else to get the feelgood factor flowing. That’s what many Conservative candidates think ought to have been the dominant theme and those grumbles will make it harder for May to abandon Tory orthodoxies if she wins.

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That the Conservative campaign is pivoting back to that sole applause line – Brexit – in these closing stages may mean that she ends up with the big majority so many expected at the start of the contest. But while the dream of a bigger parliamentary majority may still be on, the hope of a strengthened political position is already at the bottom of the gorge.