Johnson and Corbyn fail to capitalise on chaotic debate format

Wednesday 20th November

Pagefield’s Hamish Campbell-Shore watched the first leaders’ debate of this year’s general election so you didn’t have to.

At 8pm last night, ITV treated us to the latest edition of Dominic Cummings’ and Seamus Milne’s favourite focus-grouped slogans. British politics in recent years has been anything but predictable, however, one reliable constant in this campaign has been Boris Johnson hammering home the supposed quality of his Brexit deal, while Jeremy Corbyn levels accusations at the Tories for planning to sell the NHS quicker than second-hand DVDs at Dartford Market.

The debate, hosted by the star of the Conservative leadership race Julie Etchingham, began with somewhat clunky opening gambits. The leader of the opposition, unsurprisingly, took the Conservative Party to task on their performance in Government, an easy line to take when you have been in opposition for nearly a decade. Whilst Boris Johnson, again unsurprisingly, let us know that a vote for Jeremy Corbyn would lead to more “dither and delay” and the only way to “Get Brexit done” was to put his “oven-ready deal” in at 200 degrees Celsius, to enjoy with a side portion of free trade agreements.

In many ways, this election campaign has been a welcome break from the monotony of the Brexit debate. In the opening weeks, politicos have been spoilt for choice with discussion concerning infrastructure, crime and safety, education, and the NHS. Last night, however, Johnson and Corbyn opened Pandora’s limited-edition Brexit box, to the displeasure of all who tuned in.

The Prime Minister managed to land several scoring points on Corbyn on the topic, though. Exposing the Leader of the Opposition’s apparent cognitive dissonance on the subject, Johnson relentlessly probed as to whether Corbyn would support his own deal, having negotiated it with the EU. 1-0 to the Prime Minister, as the audience chuckled away at Corbyn defending the clarity of his position.

Taking more questions from the audience, Julie Etchingham rigidly policed the time given to both men to answer questions. One audience member was given plenty of time, however, as he delivered a damning indictment of the trust in our politicians. A total dearth of trust is an increasingly familiar sentiment within the electorate, but this question had extra resonance as it was put to a Prime Minister that in his first 100 days in the role has been accused of: lying to the Queen, having an inappropriate relationship with a businesswoman in receipt of public funds, sitting on a report into Russian interference in British politics and groping a journalist during his time as Editor of the Spectator Magazine.

With this in mind, Corbyn was stood in front of an apparent open goal. Yet, in a nod to the zeitgeist and to Prince Andrew, the leader of the opposition seemed “too honourable” to strike. Nevertheless, Johnson was happy to do the damage himself and drew laughter from the audience as he sidestepped the question of personal integrity like a prop-forward finding himself on the wing. Not quite the mea culpa we had perhaps all hoped for.

Following a frankly bizarre couple of minutes where the candidates were required to shake each other’s hands-on live TV, we moved onto the quick-fire round. Meandering aimlessly through Corbyn’s belief in the reformation of the monarchy, to the Prime Minister’s intention to buy his opposite number damson jam for Christmas, we learnt nothing more of either of their plans for Government.

The only scintilla of excitement that came from last night happened over 200 miles away from the debate hall in Salford. There’s been much intrigue amongst the commentariat about the “propaganda pair” of Sean Topham and Ben Guerin which have been drafted in by CCHQ to run the party’s digital operations during the election, and last night they showed why. Displaying a streak of evil genius, the CCHQ Twitter account rebranded for the full-hour as “factcheckUK” – replete with designed banner and profile picture – provoking mass condemnation and, crucially, engagement on the social media platform. The duo will of course be delighted with this as, due to the deluge of angry replies the ‘fact-checking’ tweets were receiving, many remained highly ranked on users’ timelines long after the CCHQ account returned to normal.

The old adage that TV debates do not change people’s minds, they only confirm what they previously thought, seems poignant here – especially while we’re still three and a half weeks out from polling day. As those who witnessed it will well know, both leaders failed to inspire, and we know no more about their suitability for Downing Street than we did at 7.59pm last night.

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