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  1. Politics
19 November 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 5:14am

What we learned when Boris Johnson debated Jeremy Corbyn

By Patrick Maguire

Labour hoped tonight wouldn’t be about Brexit…

As was immediately clear from Jeremy Corbyn’s opening statement, Labour’s big hope for tonight was that its leader would not only win, but change the terms of the game entirely – from a binary yes/no to leaving or remaining to a broader contest on the state of the public realm. 

Accordingly, the Labour leader’s opening words only nodded briefly to the question that Johnson was determined to keep top of the agenda: Brexit. Instead, he chose to stress his broader domestic agenda. As one shadow cabinet minister put it ahead of the debate: “Jeremy will win this. And he will win this because Boris Johnson is a cheating, lying scumbag, and Jeremy is not.”

…and Boris Johnson, unsurprisingly, did

Corbyn did enter the debate with a rhetorical guard for what the Tories believe to be his glass jaw – his commitment to a second referendum. 

In response to the first questioner of the night, who asked whether either leader could really make Brexit “go away”, the Labour leader accused Johnson of obfuscating the reality of his deal – which he argued would mean up to 10 years of further trade negotiations, and the sell-off of the NHS to American firms. 

But the Prime Minister believed he had a sucker punch at his disposal, and, judging by the audience’s laughter the last time it was deployed, it worked. Which way, Johnson repeatedly asked, would Corbyn campaign in his second referendum?

The Labour leader did not engage on Johnson’s terms, instead stressing that he would enact whatever result arose. That delighted the Prime Minister, who cited it as yet more evidence of opposition “dither and delay”, and accused him of failing to come clean with the electorate on Brexit – drawing a deliberate contrast with his own “oven-ready” withdrawal agreement.

That ITV chose to devote the first half of the debate to the European debate – a decision that delighted the Tory team in Salford – helped Johnson too.

The Conservatives are partying like it’s 2015…

Lynton Crosby might not be running the Tory campaign – that gig has gone to his protege Isaac Levido – but all of Johnson’s lines came straight from the playbook he wrote for David Cameron in 2015. 

As several commentators have pointed out, Johnson’s pitch – that only a Tory majority can get Brexit done, and end definitively the “pointless” Brexit impasse – is an echo of his predecessor-but-one’s appeal for 23 more MPs and a majority.

And tellingly, the Prime Minister added a new layer to his now familiar attack on Labour as the party of “two referendums” – one on Brexit, and one on Scottish independence. A Corbyn government, he insisted, would mean a deal with Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. And, as in 2015, the proposition of a Labour minority government was pegged explicitly to economic chaos. (And every other answer, even in the quickfire round, was pegged to “getting Brexit done”.)

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats agree that the same line hampered them in 2015 – and ultimately delivered Cameron his surprise majority. As he did on Brexit, he made much hay out of Corbyn’s perceived failure to give a straight yes or no answer to a constitutional question – this time on whether or not he would grant the SNP another independence referendum. 

Though the Labour leader did rule out any deal with the SNP in a hung parliament, he refused to play ball on that bigger question. Nor did he offer the unequivocal no that Johnson did when asked whether Brexit was more important than the Union. For Scottish Tory candidates, this stuff will be valuable grist to the mill. 

…and are very alive to the risks of repeating 2017

​In what would have been a very hairy moment for his predecessor, Theresa May, Johnson was asked whether his manifesto would include a policy on social care. Yes, he said – and nobody would have to sell their homes to fund it.

It was as clear as indication as the Prime Minister could have given without criticising May by name that there would be no repeat of the “dementia tax” debacle. 

Labour’s anti-Semitism storm has cut through

Last summer, as Labour endured months of internecine rows and negative publicity over Corbyn’s relationship with the Jewish community and accusations of anti-Semitism among grassroots members, opposition MPs began to warn privately that the story was hurting them on the doorstep. 

Were they right? That Corbyn took the opportunity to respond to Julie Etchingham’s inquiry as to why the electorate should trust him with his most straightforward condemnation of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party to date suggests so. Ditto Johnson’s pantomime incredulity in response.


Boris Johnson still hasn’t mastered the art of debate

In some respects, the Prime Minister was a picture of discipline – every answer, no matter how tenuously related to the EU or explicitly framed by Etchingham as a non-Brexit question – was linked to his European policy. 

And for the first three-quarters or so of the encounter, he steered clear of panel-show bonhomie – sticking to the formal “Mr Corbyn”, rather than Jeremy. 

But he floundered badly when asked about Prince Andrew – which Corbyn knocked for six without breaking a sweat – and to name the foreign leader he most admired, and slipped back into bluster mode as the hour wore on. 

Given the audible derision for his personal character from the audience, that will not have helped his cause. In that one big respect, he is as much a liability to his own campaign as he is an asset.

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