What Happened When Theresa May Missed the Debate
Six parties bar the Tories, all of them rinsing the Prime Minister.
It was always going to be a beat-up on Theresa session, whether she was there or not. Yes, the optics were very bad for her on the night. But people seem to forget how much worse they would have been if she'd been there to take both barrels in person.
The punishment began in the opening statements. Tim Farron had turned up to do a PSA about a woman who'd been seen in the area nicking the houses of pensioners. "Where do you think Theresa May is tonight?" he asked. "Take a look out your window. She might be out there sizing up your house to pay for your social care."
Blimey, guv, you wanna watch that Theresa! Dementia Tax? Tell ya, she'll nick the lead from your roof if you're not careful.
Farron – whose policy of misty-eyed Brexit rollback has left his party stranded on seven points in the polls – seemed to have nothing to lose, so decided to go full cheeky-chappie. He had an annoying but penetrating way of mugging straight down the camera. Within his avalanche of quips he later went on to warn us against "hair-shirted, muesli-munching Guardian readers" controlling the climate change debate. So, basically, railing against the 12 people left in the UK who still support his party.
For his part, Jeremy Corbyn has also spent much of this week like a pensioner with early-onset something. Like when you enquire after an elderly relative via their carer, and they sigh and say, "Oh, you know… good days and bad." On Monday night's debate he was playing out of his skin. By Tuesday, likely knackered, he forgot a few billion quid in a radio interview and then, live on air, jabbed sullenly at his iPad for the answer for way too long, like your granddad trying to book his EasyJet.
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Last night he was again back up to some kind of par. The real difference in recent weeks is that he has become quite good at papering over his weaknesses. Take Labour's immigration policy. To fix the insane disconnect between his personal instincts (open borders) and those of working class Labour voters (country's full), he's taken to talking tough about how he wouldn't allow big groups of foreign workers to be recruited directly from their country of origin to undercut UK workers. This isn't really the issue – it's about 12 percent of the issue. But it has become a convenient way for him to pick the tiniest of nuts and crack it with a huge sledgehammer. "See what I did to that fucking nut?" he'll shout. He's tough on nuts. You can trust Jeremy on nuts.
Amber Rudd was on a hiding to nothing, but that can have its advantages. Unlike her boss, Rudd seemed to grasp the fact that people vote for Tories because they are quite literally Tory voters. So you need to own your brand, rather than spring back, terrified, every time someone calls you "a Tory" and suggests you do Conservative things.
Her opponents would successively round on her, tell her she was scum, subhuman scum, and she'd just tilt her glasses a quarter inch as if to say "meh". She was an imperious matriarchal steamroller:
"Well of course we shoot them. What would you do?"
"Oh grow up, not everyone can own a house."
"Well then he shouldn't have walked shoeless across two continents in the first place."
There's that old Jam sketch about people who are too thick to lose an argument being employed to get you off parking tickets. She was a decent version of that: deliberate misunderstanding of the questions, plus a few dutiful jabs with the pre-planned soundbites. Ten points if you had "Jeremy Corbyn's magical money tree". One if you had "coalition of chaos".
The worst of these folksy nuggets came halfway in: "It's as though [Corbyn] thinks it's some sort of game, a game of Monopoly perhaps, where you ask the banker for the red money to buy the electrics, the green money to buy the railways and the yellow money to buy the gas works."
You know that thing in Monopoly, where you've got the red money and the green money? No? Because it doesn't exist?
Genial twinkly-eyed, utterly-redundant SNP man Angus Robertson talked a decent game. But wait a minute – Angus wasn't a leader, either. He was a deputy. Why? Because cowardy-custard Nicola Sturgeon had chickened out. Yes, cowardly Sturgeon – why wasn't the leader there to answer the people's questions? That was what everyone, um, didn't want to know.
As for the absent Mrs May, she was indeed out "meeting ordinary voters", like she'd said. In fact, she was round my house, scoffing Cadbury's Roses with a bottle of chianti in her slippers and throwing stuff at the TV every time Leanne Wood talked about climate change.
The rest were making up the numbers. Caroline Lucas seems like all of the worst primary school teachers you ever had. The ones whose sublimated rage broiled within their prim niceness. In a night where five leftist parties competed with each other to sound the most concerned, she was determined not to be outdone, vibrating constantly at the pitch of a hummingbird feeding on the sweet nectar of sanctimony.
Leanne Wood. Well.
Paul Nuttall, though, seems to be gradually changing places with an as-yet unnamed Viz character. The brassy yellow tie and too large shirt collar, like a door-to-door brush salesman from a never-was 1976. The gap between his teeth grows broader by the week. His upside-down head becomes more extravagantly bulbous.
Nuttall is the only leader to become measurably larger in the past few months. It suits him. He's always been the IT manager at the end of the bar telling you about how he's off to watch The Killers at V, showing you comedy porn clips on his mobile, in-between a lachrymose sermon about how awful it was what happened to them kids in Rochdale. The jowliness will round out that effect; it will actually make his face seem more comprehensible.
Yet, he still has a lot of cut-through in certain quarters. It spoke volumes that Nuttall was the only one to mention the I word. Everyone else seemed to be playing a game of Taboo with Islamism on the card:
"This act of evil"
"This terrible tragedy"
"The people of Manchester are strong"
"This hateful act"
Paul Nuttall: "This was Islamic terrorism."
Cue: shocked hissing.
It's only when you stick a rusty nail like Nuttall into the heart of the media bubble that it becomes obvious how bizarre everyone else's behaviour is. It's creepy to dog-whistle about it to your bacon-chucking UKIP support base, but it's doubly creepy to notice that – ten days after an attack inspired by extremist Islam – no one seeking to run the country will utter the name of what we're up against.
Did anyone win? That was never on the cards. No one who has picked up a newspaper in the past month learned anything new. But afterwards, the TV showed Corbyn back outside, greeting supporters through the railings. As the summer light blazed, it felt like the day after an election he'd won. This is probably the closest he'll get, but in that moment it looked like his sour old fizzog had mellowed. He'd held the line, he'd fought valiantly, and these, it seemed, were the closing credits on his heart-warming tale of the granddad who got funky.