Johnson avoids stumbling as Corbyn proves evasive on referendum

Analysis: Television debate fails to yield game-changing moment for Labour leader

British prime minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the leaders’ debate on ITV. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/ITV

British prime minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the leaders’ debate on ITV. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/ITV

 

Boris Johnson came to Salford for the ITV leaders’ debate determined to put Jeremy Corbyn on the spot over Brexit and the Labour leader was equally firm in his resolve not to be pinned down. Nine times Johnson asked whether Corbyn would campaign for his own, renegotiated Brexit deal in a second referendum and nine times Corbyn refused to tell him.

Johnson’s strategy of bludgeoning Brexit into every answer and Corbyn’s evasions made for a dispiriting opening half of a debate that was further diminished by some uninspiring questions from the audience. But there were moments of danger for both leaders as both faced derisive laughter from the audience – Corbyn over Brexit and Johnson when he said the truth was important.

Johnson had few if any inspiring moments but as the frontrunner, he didn’t need them as long as he avoided a stumble. Corbyn, who needs a game-changing moment soon if he is to prevent another Conservative government, was at his best when he spoke about the National Health Service and the impact of nine years of austerity.

One-nation government

But the Labour leader missed an opportunity to link Johnson personally to the Conservatives’ record in office over the past nine years, allowing the prime minister to characterise his “one-nation” government as one with no responsibility for the actions of David Cameron and Theresa May. And although Corbyn avoided offering any hostages to fortune over Brexit, he said nothing that is likely to move ardent Remainers who are tempted to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

During the debate, Johnson offered nothing in terms of policy apart from his promise to deliver Brexit. Corbyn spoke a lot about policy but his best moments came towards the end when he was asked if the monarchy was fit for purpose and replied that it had “room for improvement”.

Asked directly about Prince Andrew, Corbyn spoke about Jeffrey Epstein’s victims, leaving Johnson muttering about allowing the law to take its course. And when the two leaders were asked what they would put under the Christmas tree for each other, Corbyn scored a good-natured hit by suggesting A Christmas Carol while Johnson sounded sour when he said he’d give his opponent a copy of the Brexit deal.

At the end of the hour, Corbyn probably established himself as more likeable than many voters expected and Johnson somewhat less so. But the Labour leader will need more than that if he is to change the direction of this campaign and find a path to Downing Street.

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