They both pretended to answer difficult questions when in fact they wriggled out of them. The electorate would respect some candourby Peter Kellner / May 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
During last night’s televised leader interviews, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn competed to demand blank cheques. The prime minister would not say how much she is prepared to pay the European Union to achieve Brexit, what the cap would be on the costs for a pensioner needing social care, or whether police and per-child school budgets would keep pace with inflation. Labour’s leader would not say if he wants to reduce immigration, whether he would press the nuclear button or authorise drone strikes on terrorists, or what he would do if the Brexit negotiations with the EU broke down.
Does their failure to give specific answers matter? It shouldn’t. Nobody can be certain what will happen over the course of a five-year parliament. Circumstances change. Growth, tax revenues, the actions of our friends and enemies abroad—all these things are inherently unpredictable. Someone who issued a long list of precise pledges without regard to the need for flexibility in the teeth of “events, dear boy,” would make a terrible prime minister.
My problem with both May and Corbyn last night is not with the fact that they would not be pinned down on a range of issues, but with the way in which they refused to be pinned down. They tried to make out that they were answering difficult questions rather than explaining why they couldn’t. Both leaders spoke as if they were addressing children rather than adults.
What would they have said if they had been more candid? Here are two suggestions, one for each leader? May: “I would like to see more police officers and bigger school budgets. But these depend on having steady economic growth and buoyant tax revenues. I shall do all I can to achieve these things but, to a large extent, they are beyond the control of any single government. So I cannot make firm promises—no responsible leader can.”