Theresa May’s challenge to Jeremy Corbyn for a debate over her Withdrawal Agreement comes at a pivotal time in the process of the UK leaving the European Union. Over the last fortnight, the BBC agreed to host the debate with a panel of experts, whilst ITV put forward an alternative offer to Corbyn of a more crowd-friendly ‘head to head’ debate.
The BBC proposal would have enabled a wider range of voices to be heard in the discussion, however ITV preferred a more gladiatorial approach more suited to their audience expectations.
As such, the BBC were left with little option but to withdraw. At the time of writing, the ITV proposal remains on the table however it is unclear whether the debate will proceed on the 9 December.
As is well documented, the Withdrawal Agreement is loathed by many of her own MPs as well as those sat on the opposition benches. They are joined by the MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, who – in theory, at least – provide vital numerical support to the Conservatives in the Commons.
Moreover, the announcement of the intention to hold a debate came at a crisis moment for the Conservative Party, triggered by the leading figures in the Europe Research Group who initiated a call to submit letters of no confidence in May’s leadership in the hope of removing her as leader.
It all came together to form a familiar narrative of implosion, and perhaps Labour enjoyed a degree of schadenfreude – despite their own problems in 2016.
Given the confluence of these two forces, May’s challenge for a debate can be broadly interpreted as a distraction of sorts, deflecting attention away from her position in the Commons and in her party.
Yet it is a high risk distraction strategy. Granted, the leadership challenge process appeared to have had the momentum taken out of it, yet it could easily resume in the event that her Withdrawal Agreement is voted down. And, of course, we must remember that campaigning is not one of her strengths, as we saw during the 2017 general election. Her debating style is often wooden, with little ability to adapt and respond to events.
However, her main rival for the job of Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn, excels in those areas, and deals directly with his opponents. It is only when dealing with experts that he becomes unstuck.
The eventual format of the debate will be key in determining which of the two leaders emerges as the most credible. Corbyn’s hesitation to read the Withdrawal Agreement whilst advocating pressing the reset button on negotiations may be a good political strategy for attacking the Conservatives, but it offers little by way of tangible answers to real-world problems over Brexit and Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Not to mention the lives of EU citizens living in the UK, and UK citizens living on the continent.
Corbyn’s Brexit offer to the voters is predicated upon the hope of a possible general election and a re-start to two years of negotiations in order to secure another deal. However, the EU have already stated that further negotiations on this are unlikely, and that May’s deal provides answers now and a degree of stability whilst Corbyn’s strategy risks a no deal Brexit along with economic and social uncertainty. This, his strategy means capitalising on the narrative of ‘Conservatives in Crisis’, while also being one of the key enablers of the no deal outcome.
Thus during the debate on Sunday – if it goes ahead – May will need to present her deal as a route to a degree of stability. By doing so she can argue that her Withdrawal Agreement does provide a solution to the current Brexit uncertainty, and that it enjoys the support of the EU leadership (although the process of ratification will reveal further opportunities for opposition on a range of issues). Corbyn, on the other hand, will need to explain in tangible language exactly what a ‘People’s Brexit’ looks like and how it would be achieved.
At present Labour has presented this by alluding to broad aspirations of outcomes that construct a more socially just society. However, there is very little evidence of a broader strategy for how this would be brought about. Corbyn would also need to explain why his vision of Brexit is worth prolonging the uncertainty of the negotiation process further.
As such, as the possible Brexit debate draws closer, both leaders will be aiming to outline how and why their Brexit strategy is the best option. For May, this is a major challenge given her precarious position in the Conservative Party and in the Commons.
Yet Corbyn should avoid the risk of assuming victory is certain. If all he is selling is more of the same uncertainty and instability, then the voters will not look too kindly upon a leader who made an uncertain position worse simply for political ambition and the perception of self-aggrandisement.
It is possible that both leaders could emerge from the debate as losers if neither are able to appeal to the audience in a credible and clear manner.
By Andrew Crines, Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) of British Politics & Director of Studies at Liverpool University.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.