THE biggest winner of last night’s BBC Question Time debates with first Theresa May and then Jeremy Corbyn was the audience. Participants asked several tough questions of the two would-be prime ministers and did not hesitate to follow them up, making both of them at times look distinctly uncomfortable.
Mrs May’s refusal to debate one-on-one with Mr Corbyn may not cost her many actual votes on June 8th. And despite the narrowing of the polls recently, she is still on course for victory. Yet her performance during the campaign and on television has been less impressive than most observers expected when it began. She has seemed brittle, defensive and wooden in answering questions, as she was yet again last night. The Tory manifesto launch went badly, most obviously in relation to social care where Mrs May had to backtrack within days. Her position as prime minister may well be weaker, not stronger, on June 9th. That will not help her when she has, almost immediately, to begin the Brexit negotiations in Brussels.
By contrast Mr Corbyn has done better than expected. He has seemed more human, honest and open than Mrs May. He has managed, as he did again on Question Time, to ride through accusations that Labour is proposing as its solution to almost every ill the simple cure of more public spending. Indeed, one conclusion from the debate is that many voters, and not just those working in the public sector, are fed up with austerity and public-spending cuts. Only on defence and security has Mr Corbyn seemed really vulnerable: his refusal to say he might ever be willing to use nuclear weapons went down badly with last night’s audience.
As so often, neither Mrs May nor Mr Corbyn emerged as the clear winner from the Question Time debates. Because he has been the underdog from the start of the election campaign, that is a boost for Mr Corbyn—and it may be the single best explanation why the Tories’ lead in the opinion polls has consistently shrunk as the campaign has gone on. But it still seems unlikely to propel him to 10 Downing Street.