Who Won the First Election Debate

Johnson had nothing to say but "Brexit", Corbyn missed a trick and an audience member was tired of hearing about foreign people dying.

by Simon Childs
20 November 2019, 7:14am

Screenshot: ITV

Boris Johnson had a lot to lose going into last night's debate. The polls are looking good for him, so an unforced error or a barnstorming performance from Jeremy Corbyn could have put a spanner in the works. But this is Boris Johnson we're talking about. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, you could, I suppose, tell the nation that "the institution of the Monarchy is beyond reproach", as Johnson did during a round of quick-fire questions in the week that the Queen's son gave an "articulated lorry crash" of an interview in which he expressed no remorse for having befriended a paedophile, before being accused of (and denying) using the N-word.

Or you could shake hands on a pledge to improve politics at the same time your spin doctors rebrand the official Tory Twitter account as "factcheckUK", while pumping out anti-Labour content for the duration of the debate, in a move that briefly made shonky Lib Dem graphs look like the pinnacle of probity.

And yet, the whole thing was pretty much a draw. The first half was a turgid re-run of the Brexit debate in the form it has taken over the last few months, and here it was the Labour leader who looked vulnerable. Johnson repeatedly asked how he would campaign in the second referendum his government have offered the public, and Corbyn's answer was never as pithy as the "Explain Labour Brexit Position In 30 Seconds Challenge".

Even when Corbyn went on the offensive – reading out a document from a meeting with US trade officials about "full market access" to the NHS, and accusing Johnson of wanting to "sell out our NHS to the United States and big pharma" – Johnson deflected to Corbyn's Brexit position. "I have made the position clear…" Corbyn said for the Nth time, and the audience laughed.

The questions moved on from Brexit, but Johnson didn't. It was like he was camping out on Call of Duty, smugly sniping his KDR to the heavens without realising his position had been sussed and someone was edging around the corner with a shotgun. At one point he said that the crisis afflicting the NHS – an institution his party has been presiding over for a decade – is because of "our failure to Get Brexit done". You have to wonder how sustainable it is for a Tory candidate for PM to blame one Tory-made crisis for another.

The Tories want this to be a Brexit election – clearly. It's almost as if Johnson has nothing else to say. Solving climate change, Mr Johnson? "I know you're not going to want me to say this, but we've got to get Brexit done…" The current foreign leader you admire? "The EU 27, all of them, they did me a fantastic deal." What would you get Jeremy Corbyn for Christmas? "A copy of my brilliant Brexit deal."

We get it, we get it. Just pepper in the odd total lie and the job's a good'un. No need to offer anything positive. Answering a question about austerity, Johnson grasped that he has "shelved" a further corporation tax cut. That shining vision for a nation stricken by a decade of misery: we're not going to be too blatant about the class war we're waging, for now.

The Tories are banking on the fact that a certain proportion of the electorate are happy to hear that one note again and again. Some audience members groaned at Jeremy Corbyn's answer on climate change, when he saids, "The poorest people in the poorest countries lose out because of flooding…"

"Oh here we go," someone was heard to say. As in: "Here we go again. People in third world countries might drown because of climate change – it's all you hear about. Our culture is absolutely saturated with sympathy for whinging foreigners who have the temerity to not want to die because of our emissions, and I for one am sick of it. Why can't we listen to Boris Johnson saying 'get Brexit done' 50,000 more times?"

It seems like that guy, at least, is likely to find satisfaction as the campaign continues.

Corbyn, meanwhile, could have done with pulling something out of the bag to change the narrative around the election campaign. He didn't do that. He came off convincingly on the NHS and austerity, but that was never really in doubt. A snap YouGov poll following the debate showed 51 percent of respondents thought Johnson did better, with 49 percent for Corbyn.

Call it a draw then.


Jeremy Corbyn
Boris Johnson