Quick one this. There was a flurry of interest in the concept of a debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn when the Prime Minister, fresh from her “triumph” in Brussels, challenged the Labour leader to debate her Brexit deal.
Clear the Sunday night schedules! Send for Dimbleby, intercept the old boy on his way to the post office as he collects his pension and haul him back to the studio. One last gig for the voice of the nation! Ditch Antiques Roadshow. Put the Strictly results show on hold. An eager nation was told to await a Sunday evening special clash between May and Corbyn ahead of the vote in the Commons. Haud me back, as they used to say in Scotland when trying to summon up fake enthusiasm for an unappealing prospect.
Sorry to be a party pooper, but a TV debate on the Brexit deal simply cannot happen for several simple reasons.
First, the broadcasters are keen, but they are always keen to engineer TV debates for their channels, believing themselves to be at the centre of the universe. This confidence is unwarranted, I fear. Following the Netflix upheaval of high end appointment TV there is more change coming. Facebook and Google having marmalized the newspaper industry in the last 15 years look set to do the same to telly, by owning the distribution mechanism on which we consume media, by massively reducing costs, and by blasting out ever better content direct, going direct to advertisers, and threatening the established channels on TV. Just watch. The attitude of some TV execs I know reminds me of how complacent we were in newspapers in about 2001 when discussing why the internut would never catch on and if it did it would all need to be edited by us hacks. Wrong! Only now, via subscription, is journalism picking up the pieces.
Anyway, back to the debates. Why will there not be a Brexit deal TV debate between the two leaders?
Even if May and Corbyn could agree terms, the other parties object and demand – with justification – to be included.
On the basis that there is no show without Punch, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are already at it, showing that they maintain a strong and consistent lead in their favourite sport, that is complaining.
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The Nats have been fighting this war on TV debate representation, and screening of PPBs, in the courts for decades. They love it. It’s exciting and good publicity. Mike Russell MSP, SNP minister and former party chief executive, gets to play Rumpole of the Bailey leading the demand that the SNP must have a place on stage as a constitutional right.
If the SNP demands it, then the Greens and Caroline Lucas (groan) have a case too. And the Welsh Nationalists.
Oh, and I forgot about the Liberal Democrats and Vince. And the DUP would probably want on too.
Actually, at least adding DUP leader Arlene Foster to the mix would mean the presence of one person on stage who actually admitted voting for Brexit as 52% of voters in the 2016 referendum did.
And there’s the key problem. A ridiculous TV debate on the Brexit deal would involve the leaders of seven parties, and only one of those leaders voted to leave. Five out of the seven party leaders are dedicated to stopping Brexit. Any watching viewer seeking balance – let alone enlightenment amid the shouting – would be disappointed.
So it would be a mess and it won’t happen, unless Number 10 is really desperate and will agree to anything. Okay, that means it might happen…
Regardless of the outcome, the latest flare up of the TV debate row does illustrate how bent out of shape British politics is post-referendum. The party system is due a remoulding, or one of the two main parties in the Commons will emerge from the next year with a more coherent story to tell about life after Brexit.