Plans for May and Corbyn to face each other on TV reveal a failure to grasp the complex predicament we are facing, writes Dani Garavelli
No-one could get their heads around the outcome of the public vote. All right-thinking people expected it to go one way; nevertheless, it went another. “We shouldn’t be allowed to vote on things we don’t understand,” railed Radio One breakfast show host Greg James. Liam Gallagher and Matthew Wright pitched in their tuppence-worth. Yet all the wailing and gnashing of teeth couldn’t change the result: Noel Edmonds was still the first contestant out of the jungle.
The debate should have a supporter of no deal, one backing a fresh vote, and voices from Scotland and Northern Ireland
Later this month, MPs will vote on a Brexit deal few appear to endorse, cobbled together as a result of a referendum that defied common sense. If it is overwhelmingly rejected, there may be an eviction. In the meantime, however, we are being forced to endure protracted negotiations over a meaningless debate in front of a TV audience, for whom Sunday nights usually mean I’m a Celebrity.
In truth, watching a bunch of C-listers crawl through cockroach-infested tunnels is more nihilism than many of us require in the run-up to Christmas. But at least the public gets a chance to participate in this dystopia. In the head-to-head between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, the public has no power to influence the decision, which will be made in Westminster by the very people responsible for creating the constitutional crisis in the first place.
Any TV debate involving such charisma-deprived characters is fated to be mind-numbingly boring as well as futile and more than two years too late; but if, for going-through-the-motions-purposes, it has to exist, then efforts should at least be made to capture the diversity of opinion across the country.
Brexit has never divided along right-left lines; both the Conservative party and the Labour party have been split from the outset. Geographically, too, the country is divided, with particular areas – such as those with a fishing industry – more likely to support Leave. May and Corbyn are both Remainers; and both committed to delivering Brexit as “the will of the people.” Pitting them against each other – as both BBC and ITV have proposed – suggests the broadcasters cannot grasp or adequately communicate the complexities of the issue.
Effectively, the leaders will be arguing over the merits of a deal that cannot – we are told – be renegotiated. Corbyn, of course, wants May to go and a General Election in the hope that his party will be returned to power. Yet Labour has produced no viable alternative.
The BBC proposal, preferred by May, did try to take on board the idea that a May-Corbyn showdown was less than representative. It proposed having a 20-strong panel of ordinary people, figures from public life, and politicians from other parties, including the SNP. Ten members would have been in favour of the deal, while the other ten would have been against it. They would have argued for alternatives, ranging from a no-deal Brexit to single-market membership to a second referendum. The BBC later cut the size of the proposed panel to 10.
Whatever the size of the panel, however, this format would play to May’s advantage as those who support the deal would speak with one voice, while those who oppose it would risk coming across as a divided rabble.
Labour has also pointed out the close relationship between the BBC and the Tories: the PM’s spin doctor, Robbie Gibb, was, until last year, the BBC’s head of political programming and organised the corporation’s general election debates, which May declined to take part in.
Corbyn prefers the ITV proposal, which involves him and May arguing the toss for an hour. This would surely produce a power surge as viewers deserted their sofas and switched on their kettles. Unless they felt the urgent need for something stronger.
What the BBC and the ITV proposals have in common is that they are less than the public deserves. If it is to happen at all, the core debate ought to involve, at the very least, a high-profile supporter of No-Deal and someone who supports a second referendum. It should also include a Scottish voice and a Northern Irish one. You can see May and Corbyn wouldn’t want Nicola Sturgeon – she is a much better debater than the two of them put together. But unless the TV debate puts every possible option on an equal footing, all it’s going to do is fuel a greater sense of disenfranchisement.
The debate furore also feeds into doubts about the effectiveness our national broadcaster. Not being a conspiracy theorist by nature, I do not buy into the idea that the BBC is deliberately biased. But recent events cannot help but shake my faith in its ability or even its will to provide nuanced coverage.
We know the corporation – along with many other media platforms – failed to adequately challenge lies trotted out by the Brexiteers; and there is little sign it has learned its lesson. If it had, it would surely jettison John Humphrys from Radio 4’s Today programme. Humphrys’ flaws are legion and don’t all revolve around the EU. But last week’s embarrassment involved him warning the governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney “not to get involved with political messaging” after he suggested any version of Brexit would leave the UK worse off.
Newsnight, too, was taken to task for featuring dog collar-wearing “vicar” Lynn Hayter as a supporter of May’s plan on one of its panels. It turned out Lynn, also known as “Marina”, is a bit part actor and a pastor of an obscure ministry called Seeds of Wealth. OK, the BBC said, that’s true enough, but she was appearing as herself and the beliefs she expressed are those she genuinely espouses. But even if this version is accurate, it is very much not OK to allow viewers to perceive her as a respectable cleric of a mainstream church.
As we have already established, any sense of engagement engendered by the TV debate is illusory; we can shout at our tellies until our throats are raw, but we are impotent to change the country’s destiny.
So ludicrous is the whole thing, it feels as if it was inspired by Karl Marx’s aphorism: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” The original BBC Brexit debate – which took place shortly before the referendum – involved two wings of the same party and saw Brexiteer Boris Johnson clash with Remainer Ruth Davidson. A few days later, the country went to the polls; and waking up the morning after, it certainly felt like a bereavement.
Whatever form it takes, this TV debate will be a parody; a wee pretendy exercise in democracy. May and Corbyn will stick to the parts they have assigned themselves, reading from scripts they know are risible. In this sense, it will represent a microcosm of Brexit as a whole: a hollow sham of an enterprise conceived to satisfy populist sentiments and built on an infinite capacity for self-delusion.