Tonight’s debate is a gamble for Boris Johnson – but that may not matter

Both leaders think their interests are best served by sharply limiting the number of participants in the debates – but they can't both be right.

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Winter 2019 is not spring 2017. Jeremy Corbyn isn't surging in the polls – as he was even before his manifesto leaked and Theresa May's imploded. But, unlike Theresa May, Boris Johnson has agreed to not one but two head-to-head debates, the first of which airs tonight at 8pm on ITV. Coupled with the unveiling of Labour's manifesto on Thursday, this week represents the Labour leader's best hope of turning around a campaign which – according to every scrap of available information we have – is currently heading for a Conservative majority.

Just by happening, in this way and with this format, the fact of the debate underlines the message that both Johnson and Corbyn want to hammer home to voters: no matter how you feel about Jo Swinson – the star turn at the CBI's annual conference – this is a contest in which you have a simple choice between the two men. Both leaders think their interests are best served by sharply limiting the number of participants in the debates – but they can't both be right.

It's a gamble for Johnson because... well, bluntly, he's not very good at televised debates, he has a comfortable lead in the polls, and it is not clear what he stands to gain from tonight's events. He's re-running the 2015 Cameron playbook of pitching himself as the stable choice against chaos, with added Brexity goodness, and his interests would be better served by aping Cameron's approach and agreeing to a dull seven-way debate.

It's a gamble for Corbyn because form isn't destiny – just because he's won debates against Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Owen Smith, Tim Farron, Angus Robertson and Leanne Wood doesn't mean he is certain to win tonight. Johnson might pull off a surprise.

And if he does, it might not matter: Boris Johnson has been defeated in debates by Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Hunt, Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Brian Paddick. He still won the elections that followed. But his form isn't destiny either: Johnson's act of hubris in agreeing to these debates might yet end in nemesis this evening.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.