Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 14 December 2019

Britain Decides: Johnson and Corbyn neck and neck in TV debate

Labour is looking to narrow Conservative lead in general election polls

 Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (R) as they debate on the set of "Johnson v Corbyn: The ITV Debate" in Salford, north-west England. AFP / ITV / Jonathan HORDLE
 Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and Britain's Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (R) as they debate on the set of "Johnson v Corbyn: The ITV Debate" in Salford, north-west England. AFP / ITV / Jonathan HORDLE

The leaders of Britain’s two main political parties came neck and neck in a 50-minute televised debate on Tuesday evening before the UK’s December general election.

A poll of 1,600 people by YouGov asked respondents to leave aside party preferences and say who they thought performed better in the ITV debate.

Fifty-one per cent gave incumbent prime minister Boris Johnson the honours, compared with 49 per cent for Labour's Jeremy Corbyn.

The result was about as close as the European independence referendum in 2016.

The latest ICM/Reuters poll for the election has the Conservatives on 42 per cent with a rise of 3 per cent, Labour 32 per cent with an increase of 1, Liberal Democrats 13 per cent, losing 2, and the Brexit Party on 5 per cent, for a decrease of 3.

During the debate, the two party leaders battled on issues including Brexit, the National Health Service and climate change.

Mr Corbyn won most of his applause when he spoke about investing more in the NHS, while Mr Johnson won praise from the crowd on Brexit.

But when the Conservative leader said telling the truth was important in the general election, he was met with laughter from the audience.

Mr Johnson promised to deliver Brexit.

“We certainly will come out on January 31 because we have a deal that is oven-ready,” he said.

Mr Johnson kept pushing the Labour leader on his Brexit policy, even when he was asked about other subjects such as the NHS or what non-political Christmas present he would buy his rival.

He called Mr Corbyn's ambiguity of Brexit “the glaring lacuna in this debate”.

Labour has said that if it wins the election on December 12, it would renegotiate a Brexit deal within three months and hold a second referendum within six months, where voters could choose between its new deal or staying in the EU.

“We still don’t know," Mr Johnson said. "Is Jeremy Corbyn going to campaign for the deal he proposes to do or is he going to invite his Labour colleagues to destroy the contraption he’s created?”

He then accused the Labour leader of wanting to strike a deal with the Scottish Nationalist Party to form a minority government.

To do that, Mr Johnson said, Mr Corbyn was willing call a second Scottish independence referendum.

But the Labour leader denied the claims.

“There is not going to be a coalition between Labour and anyone else," Mr Corbyn said. "There are no deals being done and there no deals that are planned to be done."

He promised that Labour would carry out the result of the second referendum, regardless of how the public voted.

Mr Corbyn later attacked Mr Johnson for threatening to sell the NHS to “American companies and big pharma” in a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.

He waved a document in which he said content from “secret meetings” between British and US officials about a possible trade deal had been redacted out.

Mr Corbyn used the letter to suggest that the government had something to hide about the NHS.

But Mr Johnson dismissed this claim as “an absolute invention” and “completely untrue”. He said the NHS “would never be for sale”.

“The clear takeaway for Scotland from this debate is that neither of these men should be able to determine Scotland's future," SNP Leader and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.

“Jeremy Corbyn can’t decide if he is leave or remain and Boris Johnson is determined to take Scotland out of the EU against our will."

Leader of the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson said: “People watching at home deserve so much better than what was on offer tonight.

“Both people on that stage want Brexit and there was no one on that stage arguing to remain in the European Union.

“Staying in the EU is better for our economy, better for our environment, and better for our NHS.

“A brighter future is possible but it is not on offer from either of the two old, tired parties."

Updated: November 20, 2019 02:36 AM

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