Britain’s Conservative leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, went head-to-head in their first live television debate on Tuesday evening as campaigning for the country’s December general election heated up.
The host of the programme, Julie Etchingham, even prompted the two party leaders to shake hands halfway through the debate in an attempt to encourage mutual political respect as the studio audience clapped and reacted with mock laughter throughout the 60 minutes.
“I think it was a relative gain for Corbyn,” said Gerry Hassan, a senior research fellow in contemporary Scottish history at Dundee University and commentator on Scottish and British affairs to Al Jazeera. “He’s introduced himself to more voters, he’s got an element of competence and he managed to get some of his key areas over.”
Tuesday’s debate by ITV, the largest commercial broadcaster in the UK, took place against a backdrop of controversy after a legal attempt by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats to be included in the TV contest was rebuffed by London’s High Court.
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson, leaders of the third- and fourth-largest parties at Westminster respectively, were forced to watch from the sidelines as Johnson and Corbyn attempted to appeal to Britain’s 46 million voters who will be asked to exercise their democratic duty for the third time in four years on December 12.
Opinion polls have repeatedly shown the Conservative Party with a double-digit lead over Labour, which lost power to the Conservatives in 2010.
Some political observers have categorised the debates as a potential win-win for Corbyn, and lose-lose for Johnson, who, at 55, lacks his 70-year-old opponent’s three-plus decades experience in the House of Commons debating chamber.
The first debate was a contrast in styles as the bespectacled upright Corbyn duelled the tousled, blond, figure of Johnson in front of a studio audience and millions of TV viewers.
Brexit, which secured a narrow victory in a referendum three years ago and opened a running sore in UK civic and political society featured prominently in the debate as the two candidates were pressed on the country’s delayed departure from the European Union.
Johnson, who visited a boxing gym in Manchester prior to the debate sporting branded “Get Brexit Done” boxing gloves and is eager to make Brexit the main issue of the campaign, said that he had an EU-negotiated deal “oven-ready” and accused his opponent of “dither and delay” in promoting another referendum.
"Leaving aside your own party preference, who do you think performed best overall in tonight’s debate?"
Boris Johnson – 51%
Jeremy Corbyn – 49%
(Figures rebased to exclude don't knows)
— YouGov (@YouGov) November 19, 2019
Corbyn, who settled for a pre-debate haircut, said that Johnson was willing to sell out the NHS through privatisation in any post-Brexit trade deal with the United States. The NHS has provided free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare for more than 70 years and is a source of pride for many in the UK.
“I think Johnson didn’t lose any support [during the debate] – but he didn’t win any more supporters, although I think Corbyn might have gently nudged some doubters into being open to voting for him,” Simon Pia, a former Scottish Labour Party press adviser told Al Jazeera. “I think [his arguments] on the NHS [privatisation issue] and his overall tone [made him] perform a bit better than I was expecting.”
A snapshot poll gave Johnson a narrow 51-49 percent victory in the contest.
The next debate – broadcast on the BBC – is expected to take place in Southampton just six days before polling day.
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi