The usual pattern of these special TV debates is that the interviewer targets missiles at the politician with drone-type accuracy – or tries to – before the studio audience sprays him with less well-directed grapeshot. So it proved yesterday during yesterday evening’s Sky News event with David Cameron.
Faisal Islam went for the Prime Minister’s jugular over immigration, thus reminding viewers of a key Remain weakness. For while it is arguable that Britain would not be able to control immigration in the event of Brexit, it is certain that we will not do so by staying as an EU member. In effect, Cameron cannot deliver the immigration target originally set out in his 2010 manifesto – to “take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”.
Before that election, honouring the pledge was part of a contract – his word, not ours – that the Prime Minister offered to voters: “if we don’t deliver our side of the bargain, kick us out in five years’ time,” he said. Note how that solemn promise has now morphed into a mere “ambition” – a word that Cameron kept repeating yesterday evening. Yesterday’s event and immigration control thus highlighted a general problem for politicians which gets worse as time passes for each of them: trust. The longer a Prime Minister serves, the more exposed he is. There is somehow an umbilical relationship between hours in office passed, pledges once made broken and reputational damage done.
Cameron has faced studio audiences before, and yesterday evening’s was exceptionally gladiatorial: he was interrupted, heckled, and accused of “waffling”, “hypocrisy”, “scaremongering” and doing “personal damage” to his reputation. In itself, that perhaps wouldn’t matter. In context, it may turn out to do so. “What comes first? World War III or the global Brexit recession?” the lively Islam mocked. Remain’s Project Fear exercise can’t work if its messengers have no credibility. And the Prime Minister is the campaign’s main messenger – more authoritative than Alan Johnson, given the office he holds; more plausible than George Osborne or any other Conservative politician.
Only a minority of voters will have seen yesterday evening’s debate, of course. The ones that will take place closer to June 23rd will matter more. And Cameron, the old trouper, stuck to his game plan: keep going; don’t be riled; change the subject – if possible. Where Faisal’s cry was “immigration”, his was “single market”. But some of that grapeshot, much of it not connected to the referendum at all, hit home. The Prime Minister was pounded for sharing a platform this week with a man who he’s only recently accused of appeasing extremists – Sadiq Khan.
I call the event a debate as a form of shorthand, but of course it wasn’t one. Cameron does not want to risk his record in a head-to-head with Boris Johnson – or anyone else. On the basis of yesterday evening, it isn’t hard to see why. This evening, Michael Gove steps on down into the jackals’ den.
This evening’s event will take place on Sky News at 8pm.