I’ve tried really hard not to devote too much of this blog to the soap opera that has become Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Hot air, posturing and bare-faced lies have blighted any attempt at a sensible discussion about the UK’s future relationship with the EU since the 2016 referendum was first mooted. Whilst May and Corbyn have not been the worst offenders in this regard, nor have they been blameless. Each has made statements that stretch the truth and have served to confuse and obfuscate rather than clarify and crystallise the choices facing the country through this critically important process. From May’s recent crass description of EU workers coming to the UK as “queue-jumpers”, to Corbyn’s meaningless and wholly unsubstantiated claims for a “jobs-first Brexit”, they have both played the role of small-minded, party-focused, tinpot apparatchiks, when the country was crying out for strategic leadership.
Now, with the EU having signed off on a Withdrawal Agreement and framework for a future relationship with the UK that they have made clear is the final, fixed offer, May faces the seemingly impossible task of persuading enough MPs to support her ‘deal’ in a vote in the House of Commons in mid December. Somewhat bizarrely, she has embarked on a two week tour of the UK to ‘sell’ the deal, presumably in the hope that public opinion will be brought to bear on those MPs who are minded to defeat the proposal either because it’s too Brexity, or because it’s not Brexity enough, or because they never wanted any Brexit in the first place. The irony is that May’s deal seems to have achieved more in uniting the competing factions than any other proposal so far since the referendum result in 2016. Unfortunately for May, all the factions are united in opposition to it.
Which brings us to the proposal that May and Corbyn will be offered a prime time TV slot to debate their respective positions on the Withdrawal Agreement and future framework as it stands. I can’t imagine a greater TV turnoff than a head-to-head between these two political pygmies. The past two and a bit years’ of Prime Minister’s Question Time encounters between the two has generated all the chemistry and dramatic tension of a wet Wednesday afternoon just outside Ousefleet. It’s not as if we don’t already know how the debate will proceed. May will bang on about a deal that ensures strength and stability (despite all the evidence that we will be poorer as a country, less significant in terms of our place on the world stage, and with a widening of the gap between the rich and the ‘just about managing’ that May made such a fuss about in her ill-fated post-Brexit election campaign). Corbyn will spin his own vision of a unicorn-filled future in which the UK will be outside the EU but will retain all the EU market access and employment protections that our current membership affords. They’ll both agree that their vision respects the will of the 37% of the electorate who voted to leave the EU in 2016 (conveniently ignoring the fact that all recent polling suggests that the slim majority in favour of leaving then, has had serious second thoughts having properly understood the implications.
However, these aren’t even my strongest objections to the TV debate proposal. Even more worryingly, it’s being seriously suggested that this charade of popular politics might replace Strictly Come Dancing, Dr Who and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in the prime time Sunday scheduling. Frankly, nobody voted for that in the referendum.