The head-to-head BBC debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson is a question of not committing news for the Prime Minister, but presents a crucial opportunity for Labour tonight. How can the Labour leader best capitalise on this moment?
In terms of debating style, Corbyn could do worse than reading (or rereading) Tom Copley’s five tips for beating Boris Johnson. As the London Assembly member points out, a grasp of detail – which the Prime Minister won’t have – is important, as well as remembering that he is thin-skinned and a joke at his expense is a good idea.
The broader aim is to show the public that Johnson is a liar – without coming across as “negative and po-faced”. To do that, it is essential that Corbyn goes in with a smile, does not appear irritable when attacked and cracks a joke or two. The opposition leader pulled this off well in the last head-to-head, when he said he’d give Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to the PM as a gift.
As for subject matter, we need to think about what has been working for Labour during this election campaign so far, and what has been working for the Tories. For Labour, its NHS messaging is proving effective. Health is now the top priority of voters, having overtaken Brexit. Labour’s key message? ‘The country cannot trust Boris Johnson with the NHS, and the Tories want to put it up for sale.’
The Prime Minister will interject with “that’s absolute nonsense” or similar, but the gut instinct of voters will tell them Labour’s claims are true. Corbyn just needs to consolidate that by simply stating a few facts – NHS waiting times have increased, more operations have been cancelled, etc.
What has been working for the Conservative Party? In Leave seats, voters have been quoting the Tory election slogan “get Brexit done” to Labour activists on the doorstep. The phrase is short, memorable and Brexit fatigue means too many are willing to give Boris Johnson a chance to get it resolved. That the new PM appeared to defy his critics by securing a new Brexit deal – it is rarely mentioned that this was simply an earlier, worse proposal rejected by Theresa May – seems to support the idea that this new promise is worth a try.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in Labour’s campaign is that there has been little criticism of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. There is no attack line for it. The repeated vow to “prevent a damaging Tory Brexit” went out of the window as soon as Labour adopted a ‘second referendum in all circumstances position’. That is a shame: combined with the Brexit Party’s demise, it means Johnson’s deal now appears to be the only Brexit option.
Johnson is not trusted – 54% of those polled by YouGov say he breaks his promises. Corbyn fares a bit better, with 45% saying the Labour leader breaks his promises. The difference is that the Tories at least appear to have made a firm decision on the key issue of the day, whereas Labour’s manifesto risks giving the impression that Labour hasn’t made up its mind as to what it prioritises for the country.
The truth is, of course, that every policy area requires the real change that Labour is proposing. But as Gary Younge argued in The Guardian today, Labour doesn’t need to emphasise that it has a transformative programme anymore. The party may have been worried about the lack of cut-through at the beginning of the campaign, but it can rest assured that everyone has got the message now: Labour has lots of ideas.
Jeremy Corbyn needs to keep emphasising that the Tories can’t be trusted with the NHS, our most valued institution. He must also land some blows linked to the revelations from this morning, which criticise the detail of Johnson’s Brexit deal but most importantly call into question his trustworthiness. He has repeatedly denied what the Treasury analysis – i.e. his own government – confirms. Do all this, with a relaxed demeanour and the occasional witticism, and the Labour leader will come out on top.
The BBC ‘Prime Ministerial Debate’ is airing tonight on BBC One from 8.30pm.