Image Credit: BBC
The studio lights were on and the familiar introductory music was playing as Nick Robinson addressed the camera asking if we had “made up our minds?” It was time for the final head to head debate between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. For the first time during a UK election since 2010, a direct debate between the two leaders was used as a means of getting their message to the public, alongside the opportunity to take apart their opposition’s plans for the country.
There have been many stipulations over why there has been a use of the head to heads for this general election. Some commentators have cited the desire to boost turnout with the election occurring at a different time of year, where it gets dark far earlier. Others have stated the vast amount there has been to cover in the mere 6 week timeframe between the announcement of a general election and polling day. However, the two head to heads, the first hosted by ITV on the 19th November and the second by BBC on the 6th December, did not receive a warm welcome by all. Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, was appalled at her exclusion from the debates and threatened to launch a formal complaint. She claimed it was misrepresentation of the political make up of the UK as her party secured more votes in the recent MEP elections than the Conservative and Labour party.
It should be of little surprise that the first order of business at both debates was Brexit. Whoever is granted the keys to Number 10 next week will be unable to avoid placing this as a priority objective. Johnson used this time not only to reiterate that his “wonderful” deal was ready to go, but to emphasise how the general public were still, after three years, unsure of what Corbyn’s stance on Brexit was. Corbyn shot back that Labour would negotiate a new deal with the EU and then put it to the people, before stating that he was to take a neutral stance and to let the people decide. However, Johnson was clearly unhappy with this answer inferring that neutral was not an opinion.
Behind leaving the EU, YouGov marked health as the top issue facing the country today in a survey answered by the public, coming in at 42%. This is where the head to heads moved to next. Corbyn took his chance to explain how Labour was the only party that could effectively fund the NHS after the Conservatives had left it, according to him, at “breaking point”. Johnson rebutted that he was going to encourage nursing positions to be filled by people coming in from overseas by shortening visa application times in order to aid shortages. He also argued that the idea that the NHS was going to be sold to American firms was nonsense, and that in actual fact the biggest privatisation of the NHS occurred under Labour.
In light of the devastating attack on London Bridge, that took the lives of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, the two leaders were then asked to debate matters of security. Interestingly, the matter was somewhat brushed over in the first ITV debate. In fact, analysts have agreed this is reflective of the election as a whole as, alongside Brexit, domestic issues like the NHS and the economy have been the soundbites. Johnson made the claim that Dianne Abbot had plans to disband MI5, which would make the UK highly vulnerable. Both leaders were then asked if public safety should ever be placed above human rights. Johnson and Corbyn agreed that neither had to be sacrificed in place of the other, however here the similarity in their answers ended. Corbyn explained how punishment should focus on rehabilitation as we should never “throw away the key” when we lock up criminals. Yet, Johnson argued how he was appalled by Usman Khan’s early released after only serving 8 years of his 16 year sentence for terrorism offences. He made it very clear that this early bail should not have happened, and that certain offenders must serve there full time for the benefit of public safety.
With just under a week to go, the stakes were far higher at the BBC debate. This explains why the second debate contained far more jibes at each other than the first. Arguably, with several weeks in between the two, the ITV debate served as a warm-up. Johnson attacked Corbyn early on in the debate for his past support for the IRA and his wish, according to the Prime Minister, to break up the union. Corbyn also had his fair share of rebuttals, jibing at Johnson’s dishonesty and lack of respect for democracy.
Laura Kuenssberg wrote how the closing remarks of the final head to head had “no fireworks moment”, as both leaders made no unpredicted or shocking remarks. When asked who performed the best in the debate, YouGov revealed what lead data journalist, Matthew Smith called, “another close result”. Of the 1,322 respondents asked, 52% believed Johnson outdid Corbyn, and 48% thought it was Corbyn who came out on top. It’s hard to believe politics doesn't have a sense of humour when once again the figures 48 and 52 are haunting politicians. While Johnson may have emerged out of the BBC debate with a small victory, he will be wishing for a more substantial win on Thursday. The debates are unable to do the impossible and have therefore left uncertainties. Except for highlighting just how different the two men hoping to become, or indeed stay, Prime Minster are.