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22 October 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 8:50am

What we learned from the final head-to-head leaders’ debate

By Ailbhe Rea

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn went head-to-head in a one-hour BBC debate this evening, with just six days to go before the election. So how did they do?

What did we learn?

There was little new material in tonight’s debate. Rather, it was mostly a more polished version of what we have seen from both party leaders throughout the campaign. There were fewer awkward soundbites, there was more sparring, and punchier lines from each.

Corbyn revealed some comic timing, brandishing the documents about customs arrangments for Northern Ireland post-Brexit just as Johnson defended his Brexit deal, to laughter from the audience. Johnson, equally, got some laughter by dismissing Corbyn’s claims that the NHS would be up for sale in a UK-US trade deal as “pure Bermuda triangle stuff”. 

The single concrete new revelation came from Corbyn: he said there would not be a four-day working week in the NHS under Labour, in contradiction of shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s comments several weeks ago. It is now unclear what the party policy is.

On Brexit

Brexit was top of the order paper this evening, as each leader gave maybe his best defence of his plan for Brexit yet. Johnson took advantage of the very fact of having a deal already negotiated, as opposed to what he termed Labour’s “mystery deal”. Corbyn did his best to emphasise that Brexit won’t be “done” after 31 January, and made a more convincing case for his neutral Brexit stance than he has in previous appearances, with a striking line about moving beyond “52 versus 48”.

Johnson discovered an effective riposte to Corbyn’s (correct) claims that there will be customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK under Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement: he reminded the audience of Corbyn’s historic willingness to talk to the IRA during the Troubles, arguing that the Labour leader is in no position to talk about defending the union. 

On Security

Despite the urges of Jack Merritt’s father not to politicise his death, prison release conditions became a crucial talking point. It became a straight discussion between Johnson’s argument for longer sentences on the one hand, and Corbyn’s calls to reverse the decimation of public services on the other. Johnson appeared to win on the detail in this case, arguing that the parole board (or its underfunding) made no difference in the case of Usman Khan.

On Racism

Johnson gave a weak response when informed that some Conservative candidates had promoted statements from far-right figure Tommy Robinson, simply saying that those candidates “have apologised” and some are being investigated. Corbyn gave an impassioned statement against anti-Semitism.

On Lying

In an awkward moment for Boris Johnson, he struggled to answer how politicians should be punished for lying during political campaigns. 

Who won?

Neither leader convincingly seems to have convincingly won tonight’s debate, although both gave a reasonably strong performance. In fact, the winner was probably Mr Purcell, who briefly united the spin room in laughter with his question about Tony Blair and John Major: “Are they just a couple of old has-beens?”

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