David Walsh: May knows debate gaffe could see lead unravel

A crisis of self-doubt means the Prime Minister has everything to lose in this high stakes election, writes David Walsh

Theresa May doesn't seem to happy in the impromptu and potentially damaging world of live TV debates. Picture: PA

‘Not another one!” The exasperation of Brenda from Bristol on hearing of Theresa May’s announcement on Tuesday was no doubt the reception the news received in living rooms and offices up and down the country.

On social media, the refrain “we are all Brenda” was everywhere as the footage of her despair over another general election went viral. Fair to say, she – and I daresay millions like her – was far from impressed.

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Voter fatigue is a very real affliction just now. After all, since 2014, Scotland has been summoned to the ballot box to settle no less than two constitutional issues and give its say on the composition of two governments in the last three years. Let’s not forget to add to the pot a second independence referendum on a date yet to be decided and a snap general election on 8 June. As one commentator remarked on Twitter, the UK is perilously close to becoming Italy.

And despite the Prime Minister’s flat denials for months now, it can hardly be a shock to the system that she would take a gamble on what seems to be a safe bet. After all, the Tories are maintaining a seemingly unassailable 20-point-plus lead in the polls in spite of their stuttering handling of one of the most divisive decisions made by the British electorate, not to mention a budget climbdown over further taxing the self-employed and the ebbing away of support over grammar school proposals in England.

The move may not have been a great surprise to many political pundits or some voters but Mrs May’s decision may indeed have surprised her. It is highly likely that she wasn’t of the mind to call a general election until 2020, as she had previously said in numerous interviews since becoming Conservative leader last summer.

Perhaps the scent of blood from the Opposition was becoming too alluring and it was time to lash out at Jeremy Corbyn’s exposed, pulsating jugular. Or maybe Mrs May had a “Moses and the burning bush” moment when she was in Snowdonia with her husband last weekend. Either way, the clock is now ticking down to June’s election.

And yet the habitually cautious, oft unsure-footed Prime Minister has shown her true hand by refusing to do televised debates in the seven weeks leading up to polling day, telling Radio 4 listeners that she instead preferred to “to get out and about and meet voters”.

Why might that be?

Since her assumption of the duties of Prime Minister, we have seen Mrs May through the prism of meticulously choreographed set pieces. Carefully prepared generic answers or catchphrases delivered from the despatch box. One-to-one interviews with the broadcast media. Key policy announcements at high-profile engagements from the pages of finely-tuned speeches. None of these regular, stage-managed occasions has provided much substance to the bones of her government’s Brexit strategy. Rarely has she gone off piste.

Her predecessor did not much like the media interaction either. Margaret Thatcher had self-doubt about her communicative skills and nerves before television appearances according to insiders; the higher the risks, the more she fretted in private.

Indeed, May’s positioning as the contemporary Iron Lady – cemented by her reputation for stringent, competent leadership in the face of difficult Brexit negotiations, particularly amongst those who voted to leave the European Union – has more parallels than first imagined.

But this particular lady is for turning, especially when this more confident persona can be used to her and her party’s advantage.

Standing on the steps of Downing Street on Tuesday, Mrs May, with a grave countenance, cooed that the only way forward was to give her and her colleagues unfettered power to broker a Brexit deal in the face of opponents who threatened to derail a successful exit strategy, forgetting that scrutiny is part and parcel of our democracy.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon both quite rightly called for Mrs May to be “empty chaired”. In reference to when they faced each other contesting the North West Durham constituency, Farron tweeted the Prime Minister asking: “You debated me in 1992, so debate me now. What changed?”

A once alien but now established component of UK electioneering, the televised debate has had the power to make or break political careers since its inaugural outing during the 2010 general election (Who could forget Cleggmania?).

One sour note can cause irreparable damage to a campaign, and Theresa May and her Downing Street cohort know it. Even David Cameron – once a media darling – saw television debates as enough of a mixed blessing to agree to participate in at least one in 2015.

In the past, a snap election two years into a government’s tenure would have been considered weak. A position that could be further weakened once the general public see her sweat under the lights of a televised interrogation.

Such was the fate of DUP leader Arlene Foster in March when a single issue dominated the TV debates ahead of the snap Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

Grilled by both her Stormont opponents and members of a studio audience, the implacable former First Minister hastily constructed a gallows for her political career on air through belligerent answers to questions from voters about her role in the “cash for ash” scandal.

Not only would Theresa May be cornered by every other party leader (with the exception of perhaps Jeremy Corbyn) over the government’s push for a hard Brexit, she would also be forced into a Mexican stand-off with Nicola Sturgeon over her “now is not the time” stance on indyref2.

Against the ultimate symbol of power in the UK, Mrs May delivered a stark choice: “Strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your Prime Minister, or weak and unstable coalition government.” It does beg the question that if the polls are very much in her favour, with a majority backing Brexit, what does Mrs May fear from appearing in debates?