Denis Staunton’s UK election diary – Johnson, Corbyn face off in first debate
UK PM’s bumbling, meandering style is less effective on screen than at live rallies
When Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson debate in Manchester this evening the risk will all be on one side and the opportunity on the other. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
When Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn meet in Manchester this evening for the first leaders’ debate of the campaign, the risk will all be on one side and the opportunity on the other. For Corbyn, with his party trailing in the polls and his own popularity close to an all-time low, the debate offers a chance to improve the public’s impression of him and to take some of the shine off the prime minister.
Although Johnson’s popularity has improved in recent weeks, the Conservative government is unpopular and Corbyn will seek to hold the prime minister responsible for his party’s nine years in power. And the two-way format will allow the Labour leader to present himself and his party as the only alternative to five more years of Tory government and the certainty of Britain leaving the European Union at the end of January.
The Conservatives are far enough ahead in every current poll to be on course to form a majority government after the election but tonight’s debate could put that big lead in peril. Johnson has faltered in television debates in the past and his bumbling, meandering style is less effective on screen than at live rallies before the Conservative party faithful.
Apart from policy issues, the prime minister could face questions about his character and about his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, a US businesswoman at the centre of allegations of a conflict of interest while he was mayor of London. Arcuri has been on a fresh media round this week and although she was coy about the precise nature of their relationship, she said Johnson should have declared an interest when she was given thousands of pounds in sponsorship from the mayor’s promotional agency and went on trade trips with him.
Half of the one-hour debate will be devoted to Brexit, where Johnson has the advantage of a clear message and the promise to end the agony of the past three years by leaving with a deal within weeks. Corbyn will attempt to turn the focus onto the trade negotiations that will follow, raising the spectre of wholesale deregulation, a bonfire of employment, environmental and consumer rights and the threat to the NHS from a trade deal with Donald Trump.
As I report here, Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell will use a speech in London this morning to portray Johnson as a prime minister in the pocket of billionaires, a line Corbyn can be expected to reprise tonight.
Johnson got in a spot of gamesmanship late last night by writinga letter to Corbyn asking him to answer four questions about Labour’s policy on Brexit.
Until now, Labour has hoped that its policy of promising to negotiate a softer Brexit before holding a second referendum would appeal to both Leave and Remain voters. It appears instead to be alienating both but the biggest threat to Corbyn is from the split in the Remain vote between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Something to watch tonight is whether Corbyn uses the debate to shift his emphasis towards a more overtly Remain position to win back support in London and the south of England where the Liberal Democrats are strongest.
Fintan O’Toole on melancholia, fatalism and Brexit in Stoke-on-Trent
Stephen Bush in the New Statesman on what could go wrong for Boris Johnson tonight
Peter Oborne in the Guardian on how journalists are enabling the prime minister’s lying
Nick Cohen in the Spectator on Brexit and the Troubles
Quote of the day
“Is this the price of loyalty, to be hung up on, ignored and blocked? Why would I remain silent if you can’t even speak to me? And I’ve been nothing but loyal to you.” - a text message US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri says she sent to Boris Johnson when he would not take her calls.
What’s on today
10am: Green Party launches its manifesto
11am: Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell gives a speech on the economy
1pm: Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson visits a hospital in Southampton to talk about the NHS
8pm: ITV leaders’ debate with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn
Con 39.9, Lab 29, Lib Dem 15.4, Brexit 7, Greens 3.2, Others 5.5
From Britain Elects and New Statesman. Changes from a week ago.