All aboard for the bi-annual Being Savaged By a Dead Sheep Finals. In the red corner: Jeremy
"Herbivorous Mugwump" Corbyn and his view that we should fill our Nautilus subs with pressed daisies and aim these bouquets of love at Moscow.
In the blue, Theresa "Melting Animatronic" May and her revolutionary idea that we should all trust her because she keeps her Brexit notes in alphabetised ring-binders with tabbed dividers and reinforced sticky-backed plastic.
However, the two contenders weren't facing one another; instead, they took turns duking it out one-by-one against a studio audience, and then sparred it out direct with a characteristically combative Paxman.
"Am I tough enough? Hell yes I'm tough enough."
Compared to the 2015 outing for this format – when David Cameron trotted home against an Ed Miliband who practically had Paxman vomiting in a wastepaper bin over his sheer effeminacy – this was an even more dismal contest. Like Cameron before her, May had decided that she didn't want to debate Corbyn because it would reduce her capacity to look presidential. But last night she barely looked better than hapless junior minister Chloe Smith in front of Paxo.
Paxman picked up a lot of scorn online – many felt he'd descended into a parody of a former self. Yet he still withered the Prime Minister as surely as if he'd put her over a Tupperware of water in a microwave; his capacity to treat the Great Officers of State like something he's scraping off his Hi-Tecs with a stick remains undimmed.
Case in point: his first question to the PM – "When did you first realise you'd got it wrong on the biggest political decision of our times?" Theresa May managed to look like she'd neither been expecting this question, nor ever even independently considered it herself. He asked her the same again. She continued to blither like she'd been maced. It was like watching one of those Polynesian medicine-men who can cause a guy to collapse simply by labelling him "cursed".
Of course, before either leader talked to Paxman, Dave and Dave-ette from the general public were given the opportunity to chuck a few questions out, too. This they did with their usual flat-footedness. One woman wanted to know what happened to that-there £350 million a week a Brexit was supposed to gift the NHS – an open invitation for the PM to walk over and lamp you for not understanding the difference between net and gross.
Yet, instead of a sharp comeback, even on this endlessly gone-over gormless terrain, May just looked like she'd been caught fiddling the tills in B&Q. She oozed guilt from her impostor syndrome glands. No one could understand why she seemed to want to negotiate Brexit anyway. Surely Zopiclone and chain-smoking at a nice Oxfordshire Priory clinic would be more the tonic for her frazzled nerves? If it wasn't already, the whole "strong and stable" schtick (the phrase didn't get a look-in last night, leading to speculation that it's finally been retired by Lynton Crosby) is now holed below the water. The parallels between her and Thatcher were always daft to close observers. Now, the wider public has sight of them. Thatcher was all sinews: pure Methodist instinct, reassuringly predictable in that sense. May again proved herself quite the opposite – a C of E worrywart, who, each time Paxman encircled her tighter, grew more detached from the questions themselves.
She seemed to be drawing down only approved phrasings from a script: some list of triple-checked blandishments, written by a committee of exquisitely dull advisors working to craft the perfect overfilled mouthful of legalese.
In boxing, in football, in most of life, the best form of defence is attack, and the worst form is blocking for the draw. May had hoped to coast by on the easy Presidential vibes she's been trying to emit these past four weeks. Yet, last night she allowed Corbyn to climb onto her and ravage her half to death because she wouldn't engage. For the nine days she has left, May's key tactic is going to be pointing to Jeremy Corbyn with a big red arrow. But that's no longer good enough: the British public is still in a fighty enough mood to potentially do something completely unexpected.
For his part, as a man who's spent two years fighting for his job, Corbyn turned up with nothing to lose and the sort of clarion righteous certainty that is excellent on TV and terrifying in Whitehall policymaking.
Whereas normally he has a face like a man sampling nettle 'n' piss soup for the first time, last night he seemed to be positively enjoying himself. He was like a little Scotty dog with a headless pigeon in its teeth, irascible and yappy.
That said, there was the one moment where, rather than answer the question put to him, he told a folksy anecdote about how he likes to go out and listen to people. How everyone has their story. And y'always learn something from talking t'folks, y'know. This had the air of an avoidance strategy that had been meticulously crafted by Milne and Watson in some rehearsal room deep in Labour HQ. It was so scripty it had a ring of that famous moment in the 2010 debates where Clegg, Cameron and Brown (RIP RIP RIP) started spouting anecdotes about how they'd all independently met black men.
Ultimately, the bigotry of low expectations was the real victor. Corbyn merely had to make par and he'd win. We already knew what he was weak on: Trident, Brexit, coming up with £200 billion to pay for an array of imaginary stuff. On the first two, he could bluster through on his already swiss-cheesed positions. On the third, Paxman just wasn't prepared to get forensic. Francois Hollande tried something very similar five years ago, raising the top rate of income tax to 75 percent. But globalisation just doesn't work like that now. The markets told him where to get off, and the plan had to be shelved.
Faced with the most beleaguered opponent since the last one, this was all May's to win, and somehow she lost it. Even poor old Ed Miliband must be sad at having to face-off against a polished performer like Cameron. Against this calibre, was Corbyn tough enough? Hell yes, he might even have been.
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