Conservative MPs are united against Jeremy Corbyn. So are a significant slice of Labour MPs. Plus, needless to say, all Tory activists.
So one can see Downing Street’s logic in floating a live TV debate between Theresa May and the Labour leader. Set aside, for a moment, her refusal to debate him head-to-head during last year’s general election (how short some memories can be), and the precedent that such an encounter would set for the next general election, assuming that both party leaders are still in place then.
Corbyn might just come out on top in such an encounter by ranting away about austerity, equality and the effing Tories. (Inequality fell in the UK between 1990 and 2016.) But that would be beside the point. The Prime Minister’s main aim would not be to pitch to the B.O.Bs and P.A.Ms who make up the mass of voters.
Rather, it would be to put before Tory MPs and activists a syllogism of almost Aristotelean compression. Corbyn = the enemy. The enemy = against the deal. So you are = for the deal. As for the swing Labour MPs, well, they don’t much care for Corbyn anyway, so nothing he would says would be likely to sway them.
Furthermore, while the Labour leader might just come up best in a post-debate poll, the old duffer certainly wouldn’t be able to match May’s grinding mastery of Brexit detail. And he would find it very hard to defend Labour’s position, for the simple reason that it doesn’t really have one at all – or, rather, it has a whole mass of them.
But while Corbyn would grab at the opportunity to confront May with both hands, a debate between these two former public Remainers wouldn’t shed much light on the deal. What would better do so is a debate between the Prime Minister and a prominent Leaver – no, not Boris Johnson, though he wouldn’t be shy of volunteering for the role (and may well have have done before the day is out).
Our modest proposal is an all-woman debate between May and Gisela Stuart, the former Chair of Vote Leave. Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests that more Leave voters oppose the proposed Brexit deal than Remain ones, so it would be only fair that the other figure on the platform with the Prime Minister would be a Leave supporter.
Stuart was one of the stars of the EU referendum TV debates. Though Labour by background, she is ecumenical enough not to frighten most Tory horses. She knows the subject backwards. The presence of two women would take gender wars out of the debate, which would be as it should be.
Downing Street would claim that Stuart is not of the right rank to debate May. We’d be frit of the encounter, too, were we them.