General Election 2017: 5 dynamics to follow during the TV debates

As we enter the closing stretch, the time has come for those make-or-break TV moments, starting tonight with The Battle for Number Ten on Sky News. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will face a grilling from Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience.

Then on Wednesday, BBC host a seven-way debate. This will involve the leaders of five minor parties but not May or Corbyn. In their place, Amber Rudd will represent the Conservatives but the Labour rep is not yet confirmed.

Friday sees the big one, with May and Corbyn appearing on a Question Time special with a studio audience. Finally on Sunday, the minor parties get their chance in another QT special.

Can Theresa May handle scrutiny?

The campaign to date should have taught, or reminded, the Conservative Party that success can breed complacency. Two years of ineffective opposition, aided by a compliant media, enabled them to believe a stress-free, huge majority was theirs for the taking. Just swerve any risky debates, repeat a few prepared lines about strong and stable leadership and the electorate’s hostility to Jeremy Corbyn would ensure a historic victory.

Politics rarely works like that, as Theresa May is finding out. After an uninspiring campaign, spectacularly botched manifesto and evasive interviews, the shine is coming off. Suddenly, the PM’s image as a competent pragmatist – distinct from her ideological Tory colleagues – is disintegrating. She is a few bad media moments from being rebranded as one of those ‘nasty Tories’ (a term she invented).

More damagingly, confidence from within her own party could easily drain away – Tory MPs are not known for tolerating failure. May failed miserably against Andrew Neil’s grilling last week and is certain to come under pressure from Jeremy Paxman tonight. Having to directly face voters in studio audiences could be very uncomfortable if meaningful answers are not forthcoming. Given that they haven’t been to date, Tories are entitled to worry.

Can Corbyn muster a credible response to terrorism?

The PM’s saving grace, of course, is the opposition. Corbyn may be surpassing expectations during this campaign but the fundamental weaknesses remain. The Manchester attack has moved terrorism centre stage and it is simply impossible to see how it doesn’t damage him. The weekend focus on his past IRA comments was predictable, but may have only reinforced the hostility from those who would never support him anyway. Perceptions of that conflict and peace process have changed over a long period.

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