A week ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing, it would have been impossible to imagine that Jeremy Corbyn, rather than Theresa May, might benefit most from the interruption in the campaign. Corbyn is supposed to be weak on security and vulnerable to his terrorist-supporting past. Meanwhile, May stood to gain from the switch off the subject of social care, where she was fumbling badly. Yet after last night’s Channel 4 debate it is beginning to look a little different. The concentration on security and terrorism is beginning to play into Corbyn’s hands. He has been challenged so many times on the subject that he has worked out how to neutralise the subject. Meanwhile, it is deflecting attention away from Corbyn’s economic and fiscal policy: ground on which he really would suffer.
There was one Jeremy who came off badly yesterday, but it wasn’t Corbyn. It was Paxman. The former Newsnight man decided to concentrate on one thing: how Corbyn’s core beliefs, especially on nuclear weapons, had failed to make it into the Labour manifesto. He demanded to know: is it morally wrong to renew Trident? To this Corbyn came over as perfectly reasonable: whatever he personally felt, updating our nuclear deterrent was the decision of the Labour party conference. Corbyn scored three times: he gained the moral high ground for his personal stand against nuclear weapons and for his respect of party democracy – while simultaneously reassuring those who want Britain to retain a nuclear deterrent. He didn’t say it, but Corbyn’s collegiate approach to his manifesto contrasted with that of Theresa May, who seems to have written hers with the input of two aides. The fact that Corbyn had agreed to something which was not his personal view made him seem a lot less frightening.
As for Corbyn’s past sympathy for the IRA, it is a line of questioning that it beginning to lose its edge. Most voters now regard the Northern Irish Troubles as ancient history. Reproducing old photographs of Corbyn smiling with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness loses its shock value somewhat given that Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and even the Queen have been photographed grinning alongside former IRA leaders. You can’t expect voters under the age of 35 necessarily to place those photos in their correct historical context.
Meanwhile, Corbyn escapes questioning on taxes. His most uncomfortable moment on the show was when an Asian businessman from a Labour-voting Manchester family asked how he could possibly vote for Corbyn when he wants to put his taxes up, and charge VAT on his children’s school fees. Corbyn came over all passionate, about wanting to help the children of the poor – preaching to the converted on Labour’s left but hardly addressing the issue: fears that Labour will jack up your tax bill, or at least that part of it which he hasn’t promised to freeze.
It is still highly improbable that Corbyn will win this election, but an intriguing possibility is beginning to emerge: that with the Lib Dems trailing badly and the Ukip vote collapsing he could well achieve a higher share of the vote than either Ed Miliband or Gordon Brown managed (even if that is not reflected in the number of seats won). It he does that, it will be hard for anyone to depict his leadership as the disaster that many people see it. On the contrary, Corbyn and his supporters will be able to present this campaign as the beginning of a Labour revival – with dire consequences for the Blairite wing.