If you failed to watch tonight’s ITV debate, then you are not missing much. YouGov’s instant poll gave Boris a slender victory of 51% to 49%. However, undoubtedly, there was no clear winner. Boris proved to win with regard to likability and prime ministerial material. Yet Corbyn resonates with Britons on trustworthiness and being in touch with ordinary people. That said that Boris did not make any notable mistakes and Corbyn’s failure to land sufficient punches on the Prime Minister, means that of the two the Tories will be slightly happier.
Despite, the poor performance and format, both Labour and Conservative representatives have attempted to claim clear-cut victories for their respective leaders. Conservative Party Chairman, James Cleverley, claimed it was an “absolutely clear” victory for the Prime Minister. While, Richard Burgon, Shadow Lord Chancellor, tried to say that “tonight we saw why Boris Johnson will be out by Christmas.” Both are just playing up their leaders’ poor performances. As are many of the papers. The headlines of the Labour-supporting papers revolving around the NHS, and Boris-backing papers returning to Brexit.
Part of the reason why neither leaders were able to land punches on their opponents was that the format of the ITV debate was so shambolic. Televised debates may be relatively new to British politics but cutting off the candidates mid-answer and failing to pounce on dubious claims by either candidate means that the hour descended in soundbites that were applauded or jeered by supporters and sceptics. The sheer pace of the debate also inhibited addressing these soundbites; on occasion; both politicians made unsubstantiated comments, perhaps with more time, they could have been pushed further. Britain’s most prolific interviewer, Andrew Neil, rubbished the format as “hectic” and let us hope that the half a dozen debates remaining are not as shambolic as tonight.
The performances by both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were ordinary. So much so that Laura Kuenessberg emphasised that “nothing has changed”. The only memorable comments by Corbyn was mocking Johnson’s anxiousness about a possible ‘chaotic coalition’ of Labour and the SNP, but Corbyn quipped that Britain’s had ‘chaotic coalitions for the last 9-years.’ Boris did get one up on his opposite number when the issue of the economy was raised. Undoubtedly a target for Conservative success. Julie Etchingham mocked the spending pledges as requiring a magic money tree when Johnson remarked that Corbyn needed a ‘magic money forest’.
On the issue of Europe, both leaders need to work on their approaches. Corbyn appears dishonest and reluctant to inform the electorate on his position on the second Brexit referendum. This was met with jeers and dismay in the studio, and presumably across the United Kingdom. Whereas, Boris Johnson, who will undoubtedly want to make this a ‘Brexit Election’ often fell into the trap of talking about Brexit too much. Surely, there is more to sell about Conservatism than severing ties with Brussels? However, Boris edged this. He stands as the only party to deliver Brexit, and while Remainers are divided, Leavers can coalesce around the Prime Minister who has a more explicit and faster method of getting Brexit done.
However, the second half of the debate also failed to produce a decisive victory for either candidate. Corbyn’s irrefutable unfounded claims of the Conservatives selling-off the NHS are nothing more than scaremongering, yet the Tories will struggle to shrug off the reputation they have among Labour-voters. Johnson will try and avoid this debate because it proved integral to Corbyn’s revival in 2017 and has scope to attract many of the Labour-Leavers, who are born again Conservatives. In the aftermath of the debate, the Tories took to Instagram with their ‘moment of the debate’ being a snippet of the Prime Minister unequivocally ruling out selling-off the NHS, while simultaneously attacking Corbyn’s Brexit policy. However, with the shambolic format, neither candidates could follow up on claims. Boris could not rubbish the Project Fear claims that the Tories will sell-off the NHS to the Americans and Corbyn could not make clear that Labour would outspend the Tories.
What can we expect from future debates? If tonight is replicated in all debates until polling day, then Johnson will win the least unpopular contest that the election will descend into. However, there is only one more head-to-head in the BBC studios on the 6th of December. Corbyn would hope there are more and will fear the broader debates among all leaders or the three-way debate on Sky at the end of the month. Tonight he benefitted from representing Remainers, despite calling to unite the nation, but when Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats is nipping at his heels on the left, and Boris and Nigel Farage leading the Brexit Crusade on the right, he could find him surrounded and struggling to provide enough ammunition to fight on both fronts. On the contrary, Johnson should promote a more comprehensive debate. In The Times, polling indicates that Swinson’s popularity declines the more she appears on the TV screens, this could be useful in retaining Remainer Tories in seats like Putney and Richmond Park. However, Boris should be cautious of Nigel Farage, without him, it is hard to foresee we would have had a referendum, and therefore, we would not be in this situation. His appeal to Brexiteers could be costly in the 67-marginals that the Tories will be looking to gain to ensure a Conservative majority.
There are little over three weeks to go until the British people go to the polls. Voters will hope that the format of future debates will present the candidates’ arguments clearer and even allowing direct debate between the candidates. Otherwise, we might as well go to the polls tomorrow.
By J Walters