Jeremy Corbyn failed to land a knock-out blow on Boris Johnson in the final head-to-head leaders debate of the general election campaign.
Conservatives will be delighted their leader emerged unscathed from the debate while Labour supporters may be left lamenting a lost opportunity to decisively swing the campaign in their favour.
Voters will make their final decision at the ballot box on Thursday (December 12) but a poll released by the BBC immediately after last night’s TV and radio broadcast of the head-to-head debate, gave a small victory to the prime minister, with Johnson judged to have won by 52% to 48% – coincidentally the same split as the 2016 Brexit referendum result.
‘Oven ready’ vs ‘mystery deal’
The issue, of course, dominated the contest and despite Corbyn’s attempts to extend the focus and discourse to other issues and concerns – primarily the NHS, public services and ending austerity – Johnson repeatedly sought to return it to Brexit and attacked the Labour leader’s “indecision”.
The prime minster took any and every opportunity to repeat his party’s election slogan – “Get Brexit done” – and contrasted his own “oven ready” Brexit deal with a “mystery deal” Corbyn may negotiate with the EU, and then hold a another referendum on it.
Johnson said Corbyn’s failure to pick a side “on the most important issue of the day” was a failure of leadership and pointed out the number of prominent “Remainers” making up the shadow cabinet.
“Everybody on the Labour front bench is campaigning to Remain, apart from Mr Corbyn who is neutral on the matter Who is going to secure this deal? How can you get a new deal from Brussels for Brexit if you don’t actually believe in it? That’s the mystery.”
‘We need a bit of openness from the government’
Corbyn insisted Labour’s policies would solve Brexit within a year and questioned the Tories’ claims to “get Brexit done” when the reality was their deal meant years of trade talks and negotiations ahead and threatened the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Corbyn held up a document claiming it showed Johnson’s deal would leave Northern Ireland separated from the UK. “As the documents we have shown today indicate he hasn’t been exactly straightforward on the issues surrounding trade with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. And so, I do think we need a bit of openness from the government. There are going to be charges, there are going to be customs checks, there are going to be restrictions on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Johnson said: “I have to say, I think it’s a great opportunity for our country.”
‘PM said there would be no NI restrictions whatsoever’
When Robinson put it to Johnson that the “problem is that the DUP, the unionists – who were your partners – they agree with him [Corbyn] and not you about that,” the prime minister replied: “No, no they don’t, because our deal is a great deal.”
He added: “I do find it slightly curious, to say the least, Nick, to be lectured about the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, by a man, who all his life, political life, has campaigned to break up that Union, and actually supported for four decades the IRA and their campaign to violently, violently to destroy it. I must say, I find it a curiosity.”
Corbyn replied: “How about the prime minister showing a degree of honesty about the arrangements he’s actually made with Northern Ireland. He spoke at the DUP conference and said there would be no restrictions whatsoever. We now know there are restrictions. He should, and could, have said that at the time. And so it is a question of openness on all of this.
When Robinson put the claim to Corbyn that he has supported people who have opposed the union “your whole life” and that “you don’t even believe in the United Kingdom” the Labour leader replied he had always wanted to see was a peace process in Northern Ireland “and thank you to the Labour government that negotiated it.”
Privatising the NHS
Corbyn attacked the PM and Conservatives on the NHS, in particular on the risks of privatising the health service and held up the documents he said were “discussed in secret” about giving access to public services to US companies, and on extending patents on medicines that would increase costs to the NHS.
“President Trump has said many times, ‘people pay too little for US medicines around the world’ – that’s the kind of agenda the prime minister wants to get involved with, that’s the kind of deal they’re trying to make with the USA,” said the Labour leader.
PM – ‘I use the NHS, I love it’
Johnson dismissed Corbyn’s claim with: “I have to say, this is pure Bermuda Triangle stuff, we’ve heard it time and time again from the Labour party during this election campaign, we’ll be hearing about little green men next. I believe very passionately in a, err err, I use the NHS, I love it, it’s one of the most incredible things about this country.”
Johnson tried to make mileage about Labour’s proposed four-day working week policy and the impact this would have on staffing the NHS, pointing out how Corbyn’s denial that the four-day-week would be introduced to the NHS, contradicted the shadow chancellor’s comments earlier in the campaign that it would.
Corbyn tried to push the threat to public services and privatisation of the NHS and attacked Johnson on matters of trust, especially regarding nursing numbers.
However, Johnson vigourously defended his claims, despite the evidence and comments of cabinet colleagues contradicting them.
The debate got more personal when the subject turned to leadership with Johnson saying Corbyn’s position and the sort of leadership “he is willing to take” would “waste a year and more” in a state of “vacillation and confusion”.
Corby hit back, saying: “Failure of leadership is when you use racist remarks to describe people in different countries or in our society. I will never do that and my party will never do that.”
‘The honest truth – there is no simple Brexit solution’
Summing up the clash, Chris Morris BBC’s Reality Check correspondent told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think the honest truth is that neither of them have a simple solution for Brexit because there isn’t one – but the Conservatives have a better slogan.”
Saying Johnson “appeared to be deliberately cautious”, Morris concluded: “He seemed to believe that all he needed to do was survive the debate intact and we will find out in a few days time whether that was for him the right thing to do.”