Last night’s BBC Election 2017 debate was not the election changing event one might have hoped for. It was nonetheless revealing and insightful.
Theresa May’s absence was irrelevant – not because the opportunity to be heard by millions of somewhat bemused voters “doesn’t do anything for the process of electioneering” – as alleged by Theresa May yesterday – but rather, because from the outset, it was clear that May’s manifesto was of itself, irrelevant to the debate.
It was the Conservative policies that didn’t turn up.
As the popular press make reports of an “ambush“, and baseless claims of audience bias, and the stalwart defence of the reigning government by Theresa May’s spokeswoman, Amber Rudd, I am struck by the failure of the press to note that such a defence would have been wholly unnecessary if only the Conservatives had had something to offer.
The press were divided between Rudd’s “money tree” comment and Corbyn’s “soup kitchen” retort; enjoyable contributions were made by all members of the panel. But the cutting moment came from a quiet comment uttered off camera by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour – and as expounded by Tim Farron, Liberal Democrats:
‘A vote for Theresa May is a vote to write Theresa May
a “blank cheque” to do as she pleases’
Theresa May’s spokesperson, Rudd – whose loyal defence of May’s seemingly hollow manifesto has likely and rightly earned her a place in the Tory elite for years to come – nonetheless failed to disguise the fact that, in reality, the Conservatives have nothing to say. Instead, May’s campaign has relied upon carefully managed photo opportunities, and a campaign strategy based on scare-mongering and personality contests.
“[T]he challenge for May in the next week – against the unpromising backdrop of a manifesto that majors on the looming struggles rather than the rewards – is to explain why Britain will be happier and more prosperous under her aegis.”
Robert Peston, Political Editor, ITV
As one of millions of the undecided, I sat there last night watching the BBC’s Election 2017 debate, in hope of a pearl of wisdom to guide my decision.
The claims in the main stream media of an attack on the current government’s policies are distorted at best. In reality, audience and panel alike challenged May’s spokeswoman to answer searching questions on the Tory non-manifesto – to make clear the detail of the policies they stand on – so, how much will the dementia tax cap be? – Will you protect the triple lock for pensioners? – And what of the broken ‘promise’ to Leave voters made by leading Tories suggesting a £350 million investment in the NHS if we left the EU? Indeed, what of Brexit at all?
So what exactly are Theresa May’s plans for a brighter Britain?
May’s spokeswoman, Rudd was silent on all of these points and adeptly turned each and every unanswered query into a defence of existing government which on one occasion, led to guffawing from a sceptical live audience, selected from across the political spectrum.
The debate was criticised for its seven-way split. As rightly pointed out, it was a tough climate for any politician to stand out. Nonetheless, Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn held his own and did indeed maintain an air of dignity and prime ministerial composure in difficult circumstances.
Equally I appreciated the opportunity to hear first-hand from other key voices in the political spectrum, and was left with the impression that if ever there was a case for proportional representation, to add tone, colour and diversity to our now complex political arena, last night was it. Caroline Lucas did the Greens proud with her clear vision and astute words, and a future cabinet would do well to embrace the Green’s co-leader as a future environmental minister. Likewise, the SNP‘s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, asked tough questions. On the topic of cuts in winter fuel payments, pensions and the proposed dementia tax, Robertson asked “how much” of a clearly evasive Amber Rudd, Tory. Paul Nuttall, UKIP, despite his clear and unpopular bias, was nonetheless mildly endearing at times, albeit wholly unelectable and roundly chastened by Plaid Cymru‘s Leanne Wood, who held herself well and positioned herself as the party of Wales, in the face of a Welsh Labour party seemingly disassociating itself from national policy in areas such as zero hours contracts. Liberal Democrat, Tim Farron, the evening’s court jester, disguised his contempt for the Tory’s empty promises with wit and jokery which flanked Corbyn’s cool composure.
Amidst the cacophony of opinion, eloquently managed by the BBC’s chairperson, Mishal Husain, I was struck by the diversity of opinion and attitude so desperately missing from our day to day political spectrum, and a sense of boredom overwhelmed me at listening to old one-liners about Labour’s “magic money tree”, and against which, Labour leader, Corbyn, demonstrated a quiet dignity against the predictable quips and criticisms, and left the evening with his diplomatic stature and composure intact. In contrast, Rudd – who undoubtedly won a personal victory in her defence of empty words – failed catastrophically to demonstrate that the Tory party had anything to offer.
“Strong and stable” maybe – but in aid of what?
Speaking earlier today, Michael Crick, Channel 4 News asked Theresa May:
“Isn’t the reason that you are doing so badly that whenever people ask you about policy, all they get are clichés and platitudes, and we’ve seen the same today. People think there is nothing there.”
Asked for clarification on the promised £8bn for health services, and Tory plans on immigration, Crick noted that Theresa May gave the standard – (and notably ambiguous) – response.
May instead appeals to the British public for their trust; in short, a blank cheque.
However, against the background of years of austerity policies alongside broken Tory Brexit promises and missed targets for cutting the deficit, the public are looking for a positive future for Britain; May’s manifesto of ‘living within our means’, dementia tax, and axing universal winter fuel allowance just does not wash with a public looking for a brighter Britain.
Theresa May today, employing a new positive attitude strategy to dispel the doom and gloom, urges the public to turn back to Brexit and May’s still undisclosed Brexit exit plans. She said:
“The promise of Brexit is great — the opportunities before us enormous. l believe in the British people; I believe that with determination, ingenuity and common sense we can use this moment of great national change to shape a better future for Britain.”
However, on the Paxman interviews on Monday, Theresa May boldly announced that ‘No deal [in Europe] is better than a bad deal’ – and to a round of enthusiastic applause. But where is the critical press pointing out the fatal consequences of such bravado? If we walk away from Europe empty handed, Britain will revert to World Trade Organisation rules – cutting all trade overnight, tariffs, an iron curtain between Britain and Europe. In short:
A ‘No Deal’ Britain will sink us into a self-made trade ice-age
in which a cloud of darkness will hang over us for decades to come.
Such idealistic bravado from May is a far cry from the concept of ‘strong and stable’.
In the words of Jeremy Corbyn today:
“There’s no such thing as no deal […]. No deal is in fact, a bad deal. It is the worst of all deals […] it would leave us with World Trade Organisation tariffs and restrictions instead of the access to the European markets that we need. […] In sector after sector, no deal would prove to be an economic disaster. Theresa May’s approach risks a jobs meltdown across Britain.”
So what of our European and International commitments?
Corbyn aspires to a “safe and outward looking” Britain. Theresa May continues to pursue an isolationist approach, which alienates our allies, and frustrates our global status.
Such questions, once again neatly side stepped by the polished Amber Rudd. What then of Britain’s self-inflicted exclusion from European wide defence and security institutions under the Common Security & Defence Policy and other programmes: EUROPOL, the European Counter Terrorism Centre, the European Defence Agency, coupled with the European Arrest Warrant, allowing EU nations an arrest warrant valid throughout Europe entire without need for extradition.
This, at a time, when our own police and security services are already struggling to overcome the effects of underfunding, and as highlighted by Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, to include the counter-terrorism significance of underfunded grass roots services, such as the probation service, who act as a first barrier to detecting potential extremist breeding grounds. What does Theresa May plan to do about heavy-handed and ill-measured interventionist policies which leave lawless ungoverned spaces, which in turn become “breeding grounds” for terrorism and anti-Western factors.
An isolationist Britain is a reckless stand against the inevitable tides of global change.
At a time when the world has gone viral we must stand together to address complex international issues. Theresa May’s dream of 1950s Britain of fox hunting and grammar schools is not fit for the digital age when now, more than ever, we are an interconnected global species. We must not let Brexit isolate Britain, but must instead use it to jump into global affairs as a shining example of independent yet fraternal modernity.
And of our international commitments, such as continuing obligations to the Geneva Convention, the European Convention of Human Rights (which is a wholly separate institution from the EU, and thus unaffected by Brexit,) NATO – our standing in which has been made dependent upon our renewal of the American produced and manufactured Trident warheads, and thereafter, our conflicting obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT] (1968). What does Theresa May propose to do to impede the potential nuclear arms race likely to ensue from Britain’s renewing of our commitment to WMD?
Against this background, Theresa May’s spokeswoman critically points to Corbyn’s vote against legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. This Act created ‘control orders’ likened to apartheid-era house arrest by the respected South African Chief Justice, Arthur Chaskalson – and which were also voted against by Tory ministers such as David Davis and others. However, ill-measured anti-terror legislation does not catch terrorists, and simplistic name calling such as “weak on terror” demeans the debate. Corbyn notes that for any legislation to be both tolerable and effective, we must have judicial safeguards – not found in legislation such as the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Act 2011, introduced by then Home Secretary, Theresa May which replaced control orders with Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures [TPIMs], which human rights group Liberty have said are “unsafe,” “unfair,” and “go against the British traditions of justice and liberty.”
The world is becoming a rapidly over-crowded and increasingly dangerous place.
It is no longer adequate to seek leaders who pursue isolationist policies, and rely upon British innovation, expertise and “common sense” to see us through. Britain, whether in or out of Europe, must choose leaders capable of engaging with the world at large, as opposed to leaders who create international anxiety and insecurity with rash, ill-thought bravado.
Britain has a grave choice to make and needs honest answers to fair questions.
Tune in to Dimbleby tomorrow, Friday 2nd June, BBC 1 at 8.30pm – to see if Theresa May takes her last chance to answer to Britain – or to instead, repeat her appeal for the biggest vote for a leap in the dark in history?