While most normal people were enjoying the final precious hours of Bank Holiday Monday with their friends and family, I found myself heading to Sky’s new studios in West London to be a television pundit for the first of the big non-debates featuring Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May being grilled by Jeremy Paxman (Jeremy Clarkson or Jeremy Vine were obviously busy).
It was a joint Channel4 and Sky broadcast and it was billed as the Battle For Number 10 with lots of dramatic graphics. These events always gather round something called a Spin Room, which is like The Thick of It meets Take Me Out.
There are loads of politicians and macho advisers desperately trying to catch the eye of journalists and broadcasters for interviews or at least a chat. It’s all about being seen to look busy and important.
No one wants to be room meat – that gloriously accurate phrase from the Armando Ianucci film In the Loop.
There’s always a lot of pre-match analysis. The consensus was that Jeremy would lose. Little did we know it would be Paxman and not Corbyn.
Corbyn was the surprise winner of the evening. He put in a performance which was relaxed, assured, fluent and authentic.
He connected with the audience and handled questions about his past with considerable ease. I was impressed. Less so with the other Jeremy on stage. Paxman was like an old prize fighter who came out of retirement for one last job, lumbered into the ring and couldn’t quite be bothered with the whole thing.
His bored, angry shtick seemed old fashioned and his questions to Corbyn were predictable and he didn’t land a glove. To be fair to Corbyn, he handled the grilling much better than he would have done six months ago. He is now much better prepared for dealing with aggressive media interviews.
Even if you disagree, you know he’s not spinning you a halfway house, carefully crafted line.
He says what he thinks, doesn’t shy away from it and you know what you’re getting, whether you like or not.
A lot of the really negative stuff about his historical links with terrorist groups has already also been priced in from day one of him becoming Labour leader – so it’s not really news to most people anymore. And there is an age divide on this stuff.
In crude terms, older voters who lived through the IRA attacks are more upset by it and his stance on wider security matters; younger voters are less concerned, many won’t really know about Hamas, and will have a softer, more sympathetic view, on foreign policy. However, it is the older voter who tends to make it along to the polling booth.
Theresa May had a wobblier time.
She is not a natural people person or a confident performer and failed to connect with the audience who were, at times, hostile. You can see why she and her team have avoided a head-to-head encounter.
Her strongest suit was on Brexit where she got applause but the questions from the audience and Paxman (who perked up during the second half) exposed that she is flaky on big domestic issues like education, health and social care. Every question was met with the same answer, “we will consult after the election”. I’m afraid that’s not good enough for a party which claims Labour hasn’t done their sums.
She clings to Brexit as it is her political fig leaf.
“Brexit means Brexit” gives her some definition but people have lost confidence in her, and her team’s once feared and admired competence, over the calamitous dementia tax.
A senior Conservative figure told me that her stock has plummeted internally over this election campaign and that Team May will have to work hard to restore it with colleagues in the aftermath of the election. I don’t foresee a long honeymoon period.
That’s why these televised debates, or at least interviews with an audience, are useful. They put leaders – and their teams – through their paces on policies, leadership qualities and character.
The underdog often shines.
We all remember “I agree with Nick” in 2010 and Nicola Sturgeon owning the 2015 five-way debate where she made Scotland and a coalition with Labour a central issue, which contributed to Labour losing.
Without any hesitation, I would declare Corbyn the winner of the first big debate – on performance and on “heart over head” politics. But I would advise some caution to his team.
A lot of the Corbyn boys were busy backslapping each other in the Spin Room last night.
I remember doing that after Ed Miliband’s strong debate performances and we all know how that eventually turned out.
Yesterday morning, after the high of the Paxman debate, Corbyn appeared on BBC Women’s Hour with Emma Barnett and struggled to answer important questions on Labour’s childcare policy, a crucial issue for families.
Instead of his supporters attacking the journalist, he and his team must stay focused on the big picture – running an energetic, competent campaign, making sure Team Corbyn does their homework before media outings and, of course, exposing Tory weaknesses.
Theresa May has shown that she is vulnerable on competence, lacks charisma, and doesn’t have proper answers to many of the big issues people care about.
There is much to play for in these final eight days, but Corbyn must stay focused.
The whole country needs Labour to do as well as possible to stop a Tory landslide in Westminster.