Did Theresa May really “wipe the floor” with Jeremy Corbyn and is there any way of telling?
The real problem is that there is no objective standard of oratorical performance. You could tick off a range of desiderata listed by Aristotle and Quintilian. You could emulate the structure and the detail of Demosthenes and Cicero. But if you don’t compel attention and move your audience then you’ve failed.
The problem is simpler than “media bias”. Of course, the national press – including and especially The Guardian – has decided that Corbyn is a disaster as a PLP leader. Having made this decision, the headlines are virtually written ahead of time. What newspaper headline is ever likely to scream “You Know What? We’ve Been Idiots And Completely Wrong – Corbyn Is Actually Great At This”?
But can’t we just watch the May-Corbyn contests ourselves and make up our own minds? Not exactly. Not when three quarters of the PLP have no confidence in their own leader. The Tories, no matter what they do to one another, no matter how cynically and ruthlessly they shaft one another, get behind their leader in parliament. But 3/4 of the parliamentary Labour party want rid of Corbyn, which means that every passable speech by Corbyn, every time he performs creditably – delays their desired outcome. They want him to fail. This means that when May makes a point, she gets raptuous animal noises from her own side. When Corbyn makes a point, he gets half hearted grunts from his own (smaller) side.
Now sometimes debates matter – sometimes they sway people, and sometimes there are uncommitted people who make real decisions in real time in response to rhetorical combat.
None of the above is true of May versus Corbyn conflicts. Football metaphors are useless. In football, an unpopular team can score goals regardless of the derision of their own jaded supporters. May versus Corbyn conflicts, on the other hand, are predetermined. And you can’t watch May versus Corbyn without experiencing the atmosphere in the room – your attitude to May versus Corbyn is mediated by the people around May versus Corbyn. Theatrically (and sociologically – reread Erving Goffman), we’re talking about frames within frames. All the non speaking parliamentarians are like a Greek chorus. How we react to the main players is first filtered through their reactions to the main players.
And their reactions are similarly predetermined – they are not some spontaneous authentic judgement on the particular performances of May and Corbyn.
This is not (necessarily) to make some Pierre Baudrillardish point about simulacra of simulacra, but I would go so far as to say that the May versus Corbyn war “did not take place”. The next May versus Corbyn war “will not take place” either. There is no experiencing such exchanges that is not mediated by a prescribed narrative which has decided that Corbyn loses.
There can be no effective opposition to the cruelties of a May government unless or until the body of the Labour Party is united with its parliamentary party. Nothing Corbyn says in parliament will have any logical, rhetorical or political force as long as his parliamentary “colleagues” want him to fail. That’s a dramaturgical reality. When your onstage chorus deserts you, you’re as doomed as a Theban king who’s just sneered at Tiresias.
But the body of the Labour Party is huge. And growing. Throughout the leadership campaign, Owen Smith has to be asked over and over and over again how on earth he is to earn and retain the support of the party membership. That’s all he should be asked. And Corbyn needs to be asked over and over and over again how on earth he’s going to win and retain the support of the parliamentary party. That’s all he should be asked.
Because in the meantime, a convoluted grammar will have to be employed to describe the past tense always in advance nature of Theresa May wiping the floor with Jeremy Corbyn.