A TV debate that truly reflected the myriad of views on Brexit would involve perhaps 14 participants, including Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Arlene Foster of the DUP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Anna Soubry and Tony Blair, writes Bill Jamieson.
Bought a jumbo-sized 50-inch TV lately? Even better, one of those with a curved screen for the Cinemascope effect? How far-sighted such a purchase could now prove.
We may need very large TV screens indeed to capture the mooted TV debate on the Prime Minister’s EU Withdrawal Agreement. Theresa May has challenged Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to a live encounter. But barely had this challenge been uttered than other senior political figures clamoured for inclusion.
For the complexities of the Brexit issue simply cannot be slotted into conventional Left-Right positions. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are deeply divided. Indeed, a debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn would hardly reflect the real division of opinion since the PM is a Remainer who is defending a Brexit withdrawal and Mr Corbyn a Leaver who opposes the Brexit deal.
The broadcasting authorities have a duty to ensure that a televised debate on the issue should reflect the key strands of opinion: not a simple binary choice or an arc between two fixed positions, more a kaleidoscopic rainbow permanently on the move. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was the first to step forward to demand inclusion. Other senior political figures representing different opinions within the respective parties have also come forward.
All told, the TV debate on Brexit could reasonably include 14 participants, and preferably with a side panel of interested parties, independent experts to function as fact-checkers and, in the event of disputes, a senior legal figure to act as a “backstop”.
So here is the list of those with distinct and relevant points of view to be represented: First, of course, the Prime Minister; then Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable for the Liberal Democrats, Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP and Carwyn Jones, leader of the Welsh Assembly.
Such a debate could hardly proceed without the inclusion of Arlene Forster, leader of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party. But what of the sharply opposed groups within the Conservative and Labour parties over Brexit? The Conservative group opposed to the withdrawal agreement could be represented by Jacob Rees-Mogg. But supporters of the deal could fairly claim a right to equivalent representation. This might be secured by Michael Gove or (lest he might change sides) Amber Rudd.
The sharply differing viewpoints within Labour would also press for inclusion. This could see Caroline Flint representing those leaning to support the Prime Minister’s deal and Diane Abbott, who is opposed.
But even the inclusion of these fails to capture the rich diversity of opinions. For example, those campaigning for a second referendum (the campaign for ‘A Peoples Vote’) would push for representation. There is no more eloquent champion for this than former prime minister Tony Blair. What of those who would like to see the option of remaining in the EU to be on the ballot of such a referendum? An obvious choice here would be Nick Clegg. But as the former Lib Dem leader is now doing public relations for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, the debate organisers would be anxious to avoid an empty chair. So, step forward Anna Soubry.
However, even this does not exhaust the rich tapestry of opinions. For example, the advocates of a clean Brexit – that is, a ‘no-deal’ departure from the EU in favour of WTO rules – would fairly claim a right to be heard. Here former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would provide a feisty advocacy. And the Westminster Upper House would wish representation. Who better here than Lord Mandelson?
So much for the direct contenders. But a debate of such depth and complexity should also require a side panel of experts, a fact checker, a leading figure from the European Commission to provide clarity when called upon, and, of course, a judicial “backstop”. Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies could be on hand to help appraise the accuracy of Bank of England and Treasury forecasts. And in the event of requests for guidance as to the EU position, who better than Michel Barnier?
There may be moments when the debate gets out of hand and a ruling is needed from the highest source. Such a backstop would be ably provided by the President of The Supreme Court, Baroness Hale of Richmond. However, her judgements here may be less than full, given the Government’s refusal to publish the full legal advice on the withdrawal agreement.
In view of the spectrum of opinions, the debate would ideally need to be held over two evenings and in different locations, say, Edinburgh and London. One would be broadcast by the BBC and the other by ITV/STV. As for suitable chairs, this duty could be split between David Dimbleby and Fiona Bruce.
No less of a sensitive issue is the selection of the audience for these debates. It is normal practice to invite supporters of relevant camps to provide an intensity of interest and engagement. However, a significant number of neutral or undecided members of the public would be needed to convey authenticity. Who better than Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde to oversee the sensitive task of audience selection?
However, here again, the winds of change have blown to render straightforward selection on the basis of political viewpoint an archaic and antiquated approach. In today’s world of identity politics, a more nuanced approach is required. The audience needs to be balanced by gender and also by age, ethnic origin, socio-economic classification and sexual preference – gay, transgender, cross-over and ambiguous, taking care over seating arrangements so that feminists and male-to-female transgenderists are not placed together.
Can we ever have enough of Brexit? Some have already described the decision to hold a parliamentary debate lasting five days as supreme political masochism. But why should the population as a whole be spared this shouty marathon? Mrs May might well be relying on a combination of viewer bafflement, fatigue and wearisomeness – the lovely Scots word ‘scunnered’ so well captures it – to secure final agreement by MPs.
And how tempting it must be for TV programme planners to secure top ratings for alternative programmes on the nights in question – for example, ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’, or a live broadcast of Channel 4’s Gogglebox. And there’s always Netflix – any box set would surely do.