She wasn’t there, he was. That was the dominant theme of the leaders debate last night. She, Theresa May the leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, stayed away from the debate on the BBC preferring to be out campaigning and meeting real people. He, Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the Labour party, had just hours before decided that he would attend the debate after all having previously said no so long as May was to be a no show.
May’s stand in Amber Rudd the Home Secretary was a decent stand in, and quite possibly handled questions better than May would have done despite May’s absence putting her in a difficult position. The debate started with comments on May’s refusal to show up, and ended with Tim Farron, of the Liberal Democrats, urging “She can’t be bothered. So why should you? In fact, Bake Off is on BBC2 next. Why not make yourself a brew. You’re not worth Theresa mays time. Don’t give her yours!” with the issue popping up several times in between.
The Conservatives have tried to make leadership central to the election to take advantage of Corbyn’s low personal ratings compared to May’s. But when asked about leadership almost all the candidates said a key part was showing up while somewhat ironically Rudd answered for May “Part of being a good leader is having a good strong team and I am delighted to be a part of it.”
Looking past the self-inflicted wounds Rudd did not do badly focusing on attacking Corbyn. Attacking labour’s preference for higher spending and taxing she accused him of having totally wrongheaded economics with ideas reflecting a “magic money tree”. The clash developed with Corbyn asking ““I would just say this to Amber, if she thinks this is a country at ease with itself: have you been to a food bank?” and the response “The way to have people not using food banks is have a stronger economy.” After seven years of austerity and a weak economy under the Conservatives, and with a mostly un-costed manifesto of their own this attack may not prove to hit the target but does reflect a key battleground of the election.
The election was supposed to be about Brexit but this was not as large a part of this debate as it might have been, as has been the case in the campaign. Brexit arguments were about immigration; “We have to get the population under control” demanded UKIP’s Paul Nuttall while Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru responded “UKIP wants to whip up hatred, fear and division.” Rudd informed us “May knows how to negotiate with the EU” but we did not get from anyone how they would negotiate Brexit, or really why they are any more up to the job than anyone else.
In a debate between several parties there is some chaos but it is potentially a chance for smaller parties to shine. The SNP’s Angus Robertson the Westminster leader of the SNP perhaps sounded most statesmanlike bringing up the international context of climate change and terrorism and arguing in a sideways swipe at May “real leadership is putting the country before yourself.” Caroline Lucas of the Greens had the chance to speak out on a question on climate change, though she tried to get too much in and was only saved by other leaders wanting to push a similar line on the threat posed by the climate. Farron was the only leader who tried to bring some levity to the proceedings.
The debate was relatively free flowing. There were problems with going off topic from each question asked but that usually was simply ensuring that there was more clash. The downside of that was leaders attempting to talk over each other. There were clashes of ideas but without detailed argumentation to back up positions making the debate feel shallow. This is inevitable with seven parties and five questions to get through while ensuring equal time in addition to opening and closing statements. Unless you were considering voting conservative and felt that May should have showed up it is unlikely that this debate will have changed many minds. Corbyn did fine. But this was no better than some of his opponents with similar positions such as Farron and Robertson.