Instead of glancing back at Barack Obama’s visit, let’s look forward to the TV referendum debates. After all, they’re likely to have more of an immediate impact, and perhaps a more decisive one too, on how people decide what to do. This applies especially to the final one – the only full debate that the BBC is holding. It takes place on June 21, only two days before the vote itself.
It is true that the media is disproportionately interested in itself and that it tends to puff the importance of what it does, and that postal votes will have gone out well before the event takes place. None the less, in a referendum in which a large groups of people will be undecided at the last, or in which their attachement to either view is fragile, the debate is likely to have impact.
This will be especially so if the result looks close at the time, or turns out to be. Furthermore, the event will be an exercise in political psychology if one side or the other (more likely Leave) is behind in the polls on the day it takes place. This will raise the stakes for those representing its cause, of which there will predominately be three people – two politicians and a businesss person, to match the two politicians and business person representing Remain.
Which politicians should each side best put up?
Let’s start with Leave simply because it has already been claimed that Boris Johnson will be one of the two politicians speaking for it. This is more than a bit high-risk, because the Mayor is an orator, not a debater. The campaign to date has shown him to be uncertain when interviewed – in front of the Treasury Select Committee and on the Andrew Marr Show. And although an interview is not a debate, it is not a speech either, since the speaker can be interrupted and challenged. The Obama vist and Boris’s interventions have also been a reminder that his judgement is questionable.
None the less, the rationale for Leave putting him up is that he is a celebrity – and will thus have more reach to watchers than anyone else in its camp – and that different rules therefore apply to anything especially controversial that he may say.
Boris’s presence on the platform would automatically cut out that of the two other main Tory contenders for a place in the team – Michael Gove and Priti Patel. The case for Gove is that he is a stellar debater. The case against is that too many voters don’t like him. The case for Patel is mainly that she is a woman and Asian, and therefore confounds the stereotypes that some voters expect Leave campaigners to fit. The case against is that she is unproven as a debater at this level (though she has plenty of TV experience).
But regardless of which Conservative is on the Leave team, the question that follows is: which other political party will be represented at the debate’s top table? It must surely be either Labour or UKIP.
My hunch is that, since Remain’s two politicians will undoubtedly be a Tory one and a Labour one, the BBC will strike the same balance in the Leave representation, arguing that Labour got more than twice as many votes as UKIP during last May’s election, and that it should therefore take the other party political place in the team. If so, there is in my view only one contender for it: Gisela Stuart, whose cause as a leading pro-Leave face this site has consistently championed.
Admittedly, she is not a household name. But I don’t believe that this will matter much, because of another important factor about the TV debating formula: it can create screen stars almost overnight. Brood on what the 2010 election did for Nick Clegg, or the 2015 for Nicola Sturgeon. That last one is also evidence of how TV debates can help to shape the result. The rave reviews which the SNP leader won from the Left, particularly perhaps among the Labour-leaning London-centric elites, helped to frighten Middle England-type voters into the Conservative camp.
If UKIP gets the gig instead, its spokesman will surely be Nigel Farage. But my best guess is that he will end up on the Leave “supporting panel” of politicians, business people, celebrities, etc.
The Leave panel might not include a Labour representative, but the Remain one certainly will. One theory doing the rounds is that Downing Street wants it to be…Jeremy Corbyn. This may sound bizarre, but it makes sense, in one dimension at least. If Labour voters, whose uncertain intentions are key to the result, see the Labour leader on the Remain side then (the logic runs) they will automatically move towards its side. What Corbyn will actually say is less important than what where he sits.
One sees the case. But one also sees the counter-argument. The Labour leader is neither the most lucid nor disciplined of debaters. And his emotional commitment to Remain is questionable. Suppose he launches off into an attack on austerity or, more to the point, TTIP?
His presence would also be a headache for the Tories. Who on earth would they put up to sit alongside him? The most senior Conservative Remain supporter is George Osborne. But would the Chancellor really want to sit alongside Corbyn? What a hoot that combination would be – not to mention a reminder that Remain is no less capable of throwing up alliances between politicians of the centre and those of the extremes than Leave. Remain would be better off with Alan Johnson, a leading force in Labour Remain.
It would also be well-advised not to put up Osborne, who though a highly effective debater – if also a mechanical one – is scarcely more popular with some swing voters than Gove; arguably less so.
The Chancellor is in a bit of a bind either way. If he does not go on, he will surely be accused of being “frit’. But if he does, another problem for the Party rears its head: blue-on-blue fire. While the panels do not necessarily have to put one Labour politician up against another, the Conservatives must be represented on both sides. And Osborne’s presence in this instance might guarantee some of the most spectacular blue-on-blue action of all. The Chancellor v the Mayor! Ozza v Bozza! Roll up, roll up, to see the preview of the next Tory leadership contest!
I suspect that this will not be allowed to happen, but the blue option isn’t easy for Remain. The next most senior and perhaps the most weighty pro-Remain Conservative is Theresa May. But her presence on the platform would help to remind voters of the immigration and security issues, neither of which are turning out to be Remain’s strongest cards in the campaign. The safe option is to send for Michael Fallon, though this would give rise to claims that two of the Government’s most senior pro-Remain Ministers were wimping out.
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The “supporting panels” will apparently be a mix of politicians, business people, celebrities and so forth. Their presence will complicates the debate. I suspect they have been conjured into being partly to solve the problem of how to work UKIP and the other minor parties into the debate equation.
The event will take place at Wembley arena with six thousand people in the audience. That’s a lot of people, and (I suspect) a lot of atmosphere too. The BBC says that “the audience will be split evenly between people likely to vote to Remain and those likely to vote to Leave”. One senses Old Firm game-type possibilities. You can apply for a ticket via this link here.