The election debate was a score draw, but that won't worry the Tories too much

Corbyn's performance — strong but lacking a knockout blow — looks unlikely to reverse the Conservatives’ poll lead. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

And the winner is... Both of them? Neither? YouGov's on-the-whistle poll on last night's head-to-head ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn chalked the result up as the narrowest possible win for the Prime Minister: 51 per cent to 49 per cent.

Call it a score draw? Well, it depends. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s less than stellar personal ratings, that the viewing public and this morning's serious papers concluded there was little in it will have heartened the Labour leadership. And given that Boris Johnson sold himself to Conservative MPs and members as the only candidate able to comprehensively defeat Corbyn, his failure to do so on a debate stage he had no real incentive to be on will have set alarm bells ringing in some Tory quarters — albeit quietly. Strikingly, nearly half of 2017 Conservative voters surveyed by YouGov last night thought the Labour leader performed well.

But look beyond what the numbers say about who won or lost last night and the real question is whether either succeeded in changing the electoral game altogether. Labour had hoped Corbyn, whose comfortable performance last night underlined the folly of assuming the Prime Minister could come out of the debate a clear winner, would seize the opportunity to reframe the question being put to voters as a much broader one than Johnson's binary proposition on Brexit.

Did he pull it off? Corbyn drove home all the points he planned on Brexit, Johnson's cosy relationship with Donald Trump, and the state of the NHS and public services more generally. He gave a more robust defence than many will have expected when confronted by the Prime Minister on the “dither and delay” of a second referendum and on anti-Semitism.

But, as I wrote from the spin room last night, the answers that delighted Tories and alarmed many Labour candidates are those he didn't, or rather wouldn't give — on how he would campaign in a second Brexit referendum, and whether he would be willing to grant the SNP another independence referendum. Indeed, Johnson managed to bend nearly every one of his responses to include a reference to his European policy, no matter how tenuous or non-existent the link to the subject matter.

That's why, for all the audible contempt for Johnson among the studio audience — several of his answers, just like Corbyn’s, were met with derisive laughter — the Conservatives will still be broadly happy with their lot. They know they are more or less the only game in town for Leave voters and most Scottish unionists and Corbyn was unwilling to respond in kind. The Liberal Democrats might say — as their chipper delegation in Salford did last night — that the overwhelming frustration of the audience at the choice before them made Jo Swinson the real winner.

Yet despite it all, it seems much likelier that a debate that had no clear winner and a format that devoted much time to staged handshakes and questions about Christmas presents, adds up to not very much in terms of the story of the election so far — leaving Boris Johnson and the Conservatives with a comfortable lead.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.