We’ve just seen Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson go head-to-head in a TV debate during the general election campaign for the first time. It kicked off with an opening statement from the Labour leader, who set out a positive agenda on behalf of his party – including the key Brexit promise that he’ll be “giving you the final say” and will “implement whatever you decide”. The Prime Minister looked down at his notes to deliver attack lines such as the “Corbyn/Sturgeon” alliance and “two referendums” accusation. Johnson was focussed on message discipline, but confident Corbyn got off to an impressive start.
First up, Brexit and how long it will be before we can talk about other things again. Johnson again succeeded in terms of getting his core message across – describing his deal as “oven ready” – but Corbyn did well in pivoting the debate towards how long it would take to negotiate a trade deal under Johnson’s plan – seven years – and towards the NHS. To that end, the Labour leader brought a prop: a secret US trade talks document that was redacted by the government. That will have made his point more memorable, and kept Johnson on the back foot, as he had to repeatedly deny the claims and thereby repeat them.
It was unfortunate for Labour that, presumably due to nervousness as he corrected himself later, Corbyn appeared to confuse the issue of a border in the Republic of Ireland with the problem of creating a border down the Irish sea. He also mistakenly said Johnson’s Brexit deal passed with DUP support: it neither passed completely, nor did it pass second reading with DUP votes. And it was clear in the first half of the debate that Corbyn’s weak point is still his refusal to either state a Brexit position or explain properly why he won’t make his position clear in advance of the second referendum.
From then on, Corbyn’s nerves must have calmed because he outperformed Johnson during the second half. His “coalition of choas” line was a striking one. He offered excellent responses on the NHS, which involved a personal story, and on leadership, explaining with real sincerity that he believes trust must be earned and that he wants to bring people together rather than divide them. He also struck the right note when asked about Prince Andrew, making a point to address the victims of Jeffrey Epstein above all else, whereas Johnson gave an odd answer on the monarchy that simply described it as “beyond reproach”. Most notably, Corbyn was relaxed enough to be witty – wittier than Johnson. Asked what present he would leave under the Christmas tree for the PM, he replied: “A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.”
Overall, Corbyn did well – but Johnson was not derailed in the way that Labour needs him to be. If the party is to close the gap in the polls before December 12th arrives, those who want to see the Tories kicked out of government need to see Corbyn land a series of game-changing killer blows or see Johnson implode dramatically. The Prime Minister was unclear, failed to show a caring side, bored the audience with his repeated slogans, kept talking over the host – and yet none of that is enough to cause him to lose the election.