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The Battle for No. 10 – over before it began?

John Lehal, CEO, Four Public Affairs

There is just over a week to go before the general election but the battle for Number 10 is over. I write, of course, about Bank Holiday Monday’s televised almost-debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. While Channel 4 and Sky News between them couldn’t convince the two leaders to appear on screen at the same time, they at least managed to get both of them to the same studio. What did we learn, and how will it change a contest that has finally seen the polls start to narrow?

Midway through a campaign that was explicitly called to provide a personal endorsement for Theresa May, many voters still feel unsure about both candidates for Prime Minister. Monday night’s debate was a chance for Theresa May to prove to the voters that she can still offer “strong and stable” leadership despite a fortnight of u-turns and missteps. The Labour leadership, meanwhile, has long suggested that voters would come around to Jeremy Corbyn if they just got the chance to get to know him and his policy programme.

It was a challenging few hours for both sides. Corbyn went first and faced a grilling from both the audience and a fiery Jeremy Paxman about his past views on everything from Irish republicanism to the fate of the Monarchy. Theresa May faced a sceptical audience who had questions on her ever-changing plans to fund social care and, a week after the tragic events in Manchester, what her role had been in cuts to the Police during her time as Home Secretary.

Overall, both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition will be happy with their performances. Corbyn was perhaps the winner – on a split decision – but his surprisingly assured performance has to be judged against a set of considerably low expectations. May, meanwhile, came through unscathed. Her lines about being a “difficult woman” ready to talk tough on Brexit will resonate with the former UKIP voters she hopes to win over.

From here, both leaders will seek to play to their strengths – Theresa May articulating she is best to negotiate Brexit for Britain; Corbyn that his policies can create a fairer Britain.  The Prime Minister will play it safe and limit her media exposure to one speech a day in front of hand-picked party activists; the Labour Leader will continue to project himself as the insurgent under-dog.

But will the contest change as a result? The answer is probably “no”. Less than 3 million people tuned in the Battle for Number 10 compared to almost 9 million for Britain’s Got Talent at the same time. When they tell the story of the 2017 election, it will still most likely say this TV shouting match was just a speedbump on May’s journey back to power rather than a Corbyn-shaped hole in the road.

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