General Election Panel: Public turns the screws on leaders during televised debate

Each week, our General Election Panel of political communications and public affairs experts, from across the spectrum, will pass judgement on the highlights and missteps of the campaigns as the UK marches toward polling day.

In another febrile week on the general election trail the main parties put their manifestos to the public, but all eyes were on Friday's Question Time leaders' debates, in which Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, Jo Swinson and Boris Johnson were all questioned for half an hour each.

While Corbyn and Sturgeon appeared comfortable in the heat of public questioning, Swinson and Johnson did not fare as well. Swinson's Lib Dems have still not shed the baggage of the 2012-2015 coalition government in the eyes of the public. Meanwhile, Johnson failed to convince the studio audience that they should trust him after he was repeatedly pressed on remarks he made in columns during his earlier career as a journalist, as well as why, as prime minister, he had failed to release a report into interference in British politics by Russia ahead of the election.

On Tuesday Corbyn failed to put allegations of antisemitism in the Labour party to rest during a hard-hitting interview with Andrew Neil, while the UK's Chief Rabbi said Corbyn was unfit to be lead the country.

While other party leaders have agreed to be interviewed by Neil in the run-up to the election, Johnson's team has so far refused to confirm a date, which may leave him open to the charge that he is avoiding scrutiny.

Finally, Labour launched delivered a potential bombshell on Wednesday with leaked government papers that it says shows the NHS will be on the table in trade negotiations with the US following Brexit, despite repeated claims to the contrary – but will it convince voters?

Now, our expert panellists discuss the events of the past seven days:

Zoe Thorogood, senior director at APCO Worldwide and former director of external relations at Conservative Campaign Headquarters

Zoe Thorogood

It's hard to imagine an interview where you admit a £58bn hole in your finance plans and that doesn't turn out to be the worst thing you've said. Yet that was exactly what happened to Jeremy Corbyn this week when he went head-to-head with Andrew Neil on the BBC. The leaked texts from Labour strategists on the 'horrific' interview said it all and Jeremy Corbyn's refusal to apologise for the undeniable antisemitism in parts of his party is baffling, not only morally and ethically but, frankly, also from a communications standpoint.

'Flooding hashtags with positive messages' was never going to stem the flow of criticism and shows a naïvety of approach from Labour apparatchiks about an issue which has dominated Labour Party headlines for more than a year. There's a commonly held rule in the PR world – if a story hasn't gone away after a week, it is time to change tack. This mess has been going on for well over a year.

Mainstream media may seem like the sole enemy of the Labour campaign right now, but the SNP fared no better when facing the formidable Neil, as Nicola Sturgeon was repeatedly exposed over her party's appalling record on the NHS. With only two weeks to go it will be Boris' turn in the same slot next week. His team will be prepping for difficult questions, but it would take something quite spectacular to happen for the interview to go as badly as Corbyn's. At least, that is what CCHQ will be hoping.

Nick Williams, managing director of issues and public affairs at BCW and former adviser to Labour under Tony Blair

Nick Williams

In all the elections I have been involved in or covered over the past 30 years, I have never seen a mainstream religious leader criticise a major party leader in such a clear and impactful critique than we have seen with the Chief Rabbi. His intervention in a Times article was clearly timed to have an impact – and what an impact it has. Ahead of Labour's launch of its race and faith manifesto and the evening's set-piece Andrew Neil interview, the Chief Rabbi did not hold back, saying that "a new poison – sanctioned from the very top – had taken root" in the Labour Party, and asking people to vote with their conscience.

This was a clear message and a clear challenge to the electorate's conscience. Labour was clearly severely rattled and Corbyn failed to respond well in the Neil interview. Why Corbyn did not apologise in the Neil interview – as he has in the past – remains impossible to answer. This issue will go on for some time and may well have a decisive impact on this election. Corbyn does not have a credible response and, rightfully, Labour will – and should be – on the back foot on this issue.

For someone who used to be a member of that party – and was proud to have been part of the team to have elected a Labour Prime Minister on three occasions to positively change people's lives – I feel horrified that Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party has allowed this to happen. Let us never forget and never ever tolerate any signs or acceptance of antisemitism.

Laura Sainsbury, chair of Women in Public Affairs and board member of Labour in the City

Laura Sainsbury

Content development and publication are a vital part of any communications campaign and, in an election campaign, manifestos are a key piece of content. Over the past week, the various manifesto launches have been particularly illustrative of each party's distinct approach and challenges.

For the Conservatives, a Sunday launch and limited content was intended to not dilute the key Brexit message with any concerns on domestic policy, while also avoiding the disasters of 2017. Conversely, Labour – desperately trying to keep the focus on the domestic agenda – continued to flood the electorate with new policies.

In keeping with their largely futile bid to present a fresh alternative, the Lib Dems held a bells-and-whistles affair in a nightclub, while the Brexit Party stuck to its idiosyncratic roots, abandoning a formal manifesto for "a contract with the people".

Does it really matter what's actually published? I think yes. Practically speaking, a manifesto represents the programme for government that the Civil Service can take its instructions from, and – in these coalition-forming days – that negotiating parties will use as the basis for discussions. Moreover, like all good campaign content, manifestos and policy announcements decide the appetite for and tone of media coverage, setting the news agenda.

Labour is betting on this. Each day it announces a major new policy is a day the party is in the news, but can avoid talking about Brexit or antisemitism. Corbyn believes the more people see his policies, the more they will like him. That's a big gamble though, as the latest polls show.

Sir Craig Oliver, principal at Teneo and former director of comms to David Cameron

Craig Oliver

Every political campaign needs a positive – why we are good for you – message; and a negative – why they are bad for you – attack line. In this election, Labour says it'll make an unfair society better for tens of millions – and is claiming it has proof Tories will sell our precious NHS down the river in a post-Brexit trade deal with Trump. Boris Johnson says only he can end Brexit dither and Corbyn is a Marxist and antisemitic.

The Conservatives have had mixed fortunes with their attack lines in recent elections. When I was part of the 2015 campaign, we hit the motherlode by endlessly pointing out that Ed Miliband would be in Alex Salmond’s pocket, when he did a deal with him to win power, which put Labour on the run. In 2017 Theresa May fared worse. There was barely a day that passed without the right-wing press running a story about how Corbyn was a friend to Hamas and the IRA, but it didn't stick.

You can see the anti-Corbyn forces now focusing on antisemitism. The campaign has been dominated in recent days by the Chief Rabbi derailing Labour’s anti-racism day and an array of broadcasters and papers leading on his refusal to apologise to the Jewish community when Andrew Neil invited him to.

The political bubble is excited – but I'm not so sure. Just because Andrew Neil skewered him in the view of political connoisseurs doesn’t mean it cut through. The same as Labour telling people the NHS will be privatised may just be preaching to the Momentum choir. It takes a lot to get really noticed, and even more to shift votes.



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