It was less ITV leader’s debate, more ITV2 police drama as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn gave their best I’m-not-fucking-about prime ministerial stare. One wants answers (from the billionaire class); the other wants love (ideally from a Trump administration), but both men want revenge (ideally on the other). If such a thing is a dish best-served cold, though, consider last night a recipe for disaster as complex topics were boiled down to a meagre 50 minutes.
And, as we’ve come to expect from the trenches of modern politics, there was lots of shouting, and lots of audience participation - both of which can cloud the most salient talking points of the night. Somewhat important when you’re deciding upon the winner of a debate. So, to clear the smog, we’ve broken down Tuesday’s crime scene into the headlines, and the definitive lowlights.
As with all televised debates, there were opening statements following Big Ben’s take on the House Of Cards theme. They set the tone for the entire evening.
Corbyn, after apparently pilfering his former deputy’s specs for a bit of centrist dad oomph, stuck to the left’s long-standing shibboleths of opportunity, hope and wealth sharing. So far, so Labour. Then, it was onto Brexit, on how Corbyn would call a final people’s vote with a referendum (because that worked out so well in 2016), before criticising the megarich’s tax rates that are fairly modest by continental standards.
And this very whisper of Europe triggered Johnson from the off. If Corbyn was to focus on the UK’s domestic direction, the Prime Minister was obsessed with its international one all night long. Yes, like a Lionel Richie that can’t stick anything hotter than a korma and chips, Johnson was Brexit, Brexit, Brexit, and how his plans would “end this national misery”. And it was at this point that madam moderator Julie Etchingham cut him off. This was to become a running theme.
From there, it was a dive into the mud. Johnson told viewers around 7,281,092 times that his “oven ready” deal was ready to cook. The only ones blocking it? Corbyn, who refused to discuss his own EU leanings, even when needled by his opponent. Not a very good start.
In response, the Labour leader argued that Boris twice voted against Theresa May’s deal, who was likely watching such events unfold on her seventh pint of Jacob’s Creek. Hers was better, sure. But Corbyn still dodged discussion of his own Euroscepticism. Probably because they’re at odds with his liberal, younger voting bloc that don’t want to forage their future meals from bins.
People are getting very nervous about the NHS. There are whispers of privatisation, of how we’ll soon enjoy those American adverts in which a family dance around a kitchen below disclaimers that this hair loss treatment may cause sudden death. People don’t really want that.
And neither did Corbyn as he waved around meeting minutes from US trade appointments that were redacted in full. Following the questions of a doctor that undressed an entire nation with his eyes, the Labour leader agreed that our health service was under immense strain. A report by the Health Foundation found that English NHS trusts had seen a 21% reduction in funding over recent years, and Corbyn compacted the narrative with a personal story of a woman who died due to substandard cancer treatment. A little invasive, sure, but pair an anecdote with stats about unfilled vacancies and potential privatisation in an American asset grab, and you’ve an electoral banger. Cue extended cheers from the studio audience
Johnson too espoused respect for the NHS, but he floundered. Despite a £34 billion spend (which sounds like an awful lot, though is far less than levels of investment by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), Johnson pointed to 40 future plans for hospitals, but only greenlighting six. That leaves 34 unaccounted for. He was keen to stress the dignity in social care, though: unlike the ill-fated dementia tax - crikey, remember that? - nobody would sell their home to pay for care.
Blair’s Labour liked to spend. And to balance the books, David Cameron’s Tories wanted to save. But after nine years, Corbyn argued that the number of billionaires had grown under austerity, alongside extreme poverty and personal debt with families largely affected. To remedy this, the Labour leader reasserted a commitment to a £10 per hour living wage, an end to zero hour contracts and investment that stimulated manufacturing job growth.
Johnson argued that he’d handled public finances by shelving a plan to cut corporation tax (yes, because billionaires paying even less is a perfect salve to austerity), then pivoted back to Labour’s “deadlock and division over Brexit”. The studio audience began to groan, as did those at home.
Etchingham flirted with the prospect of a Pullitzer when she asked both leaders if trust and truth were important. Shockingly, they both said yes. Democracy dies in darkness, folks.
The difference here though, was the entitlement to public trust: Corbyn believes it is earned, while Johnson pointed to his tenure as mayor and an MP (which is shaky, as millions die like dogs in hot cars when riding a Routemaster in early April).
Worse, some have decried the delay of a Tory manifesto as a tactical manoeuvre to allow Johnson some wriggle room. It may come Monday. Perhaps Tuesday. Maybe still on a pack of Rizla in the bottom of Priti Patel’s Paul’s Boutique handbag.
But, as soon as the conversation turned to Corbyn’s handling of anti-semitism, the Labour leader showed a huge weakness: he once again condemned racism of all kinds with the gusto of, well, a septugenerian horticulturist from Islington. As it arguably took Corbyn far too long to suspend bona fide bigots too, this is a scab Johnson will continue to pick.
Which quickly segued into a bizarre quick fire question round akin to the back page of Smash Hits!: did candidates deem the royal family fit for purpose? Improvement needed, said Corbyn. An institution beyond reproach for Johnson. Was Prince Andrew fit for purpose? Absolutely not, we screamed from sofas, followed by a mutual steer from both candidates to observe the abused women and children of the Jeffrey Epstein case. And, most unnecessarily, what would each candidate exchange under the Christmas tree? For Boris, a tale of abject poverty in A Christmas Carol, and for Corbyn, a copy of Boris’ Tory Brexit deal (yes, that again).
The problems of such a debate were painfully on display: this was too short, too terse, and there were too many things missing. Clear moderation, for a start, alongside structure and a realistic runtime. And missing too were Nicola Sturgy, Queen of Scots and Westminster’s resident milk monitor, Jo Swinson. But the most striking absence was the very thing needed in a debate of this magnitude: a clear, coherent, convincing winner. Don’t get your hopes up.
Murray Clark is digital style editor at Esquire.
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