UK Party Leaders go head to head in first televised debate

22 November 2019

Without the benefit of published party manifestos and amid the bluff and bluster of the electoral campaigns, the first televised debate between prime minister Boris Johnson and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was supposed to offer clarity and reinvigorate the political discourse which had been flailing since the UK voted to leave the EU back in 23 June 2016.

The debate, aired on ITV, lacked political depth and yielded no clear winner. Boris Johnson devoted most of his time to Brexit, stressing that the General Election had been called due to the paralysis of Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn, who said that he would get Brexit sorted in nine months with an improved deal to be put to a referendum against a Remain option, was repeatedly criticised for not saying whether he would back his revised deal or campaign for Remain. Johnson drew sighs from the audience for peppering the debate with the same line, that a vote for Jeremy Corbyn would mean more ‘dither and delay’ on Brexit and that only a Tory majority could ‘get Brexit done’. This drew the irk of Corbyn who warned that there could be no quick UK-EU trade deal by December 2020 as Johnson had promised.

During the second half of the debate Jeremy Corbyn brandished a report on secret talks to open up UK health markets to US corporation. This, in his view, was the selling out of the NHS to the U.S. and big pharma. Boris Johnson rebuffed the report and the notion that the service would be privatised. He was quick to return to Brexit, claiming that the funding of the NHS would be hampered by delaying Brexit.

Missing from the debate was the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, who lost a last-ditch legal challenge to participate in the debate. Speaking during a solo interview after the debate, Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that the voice of Remain was not present during the debate as both the government and official opposition had a pro-Brexit stance. SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon said in her interview that the debate laid bare the fact that neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn should be able to determine Scotland’s future. The comment came after Johnson had warned that Labour would allow a second Brexit referendum, followed by another one on Scottish independence.

There was no clear winner from the head-to-head debate. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson were subjected to laughter from the audience. Of the 1,000 viewers polled by YouGov, 51% to 49% felt that the prime minister outperformed his rival. Given the perpetual focus on Brexit and the lack of political depth, it was fitting that 58% of viewers found the debate “frustrating”.

In the latest YouGov Poll, the Conservatives lead with 42% share of the vote, followed by Labour on 30% and the Liberal Democrats trailing at 15%. The General Election will take place on 12 December 2019.

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