Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Britain Decides: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn square off in first election debate

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives hold double-digit lead in polls as both parties struggle to bring winter election to life

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will face off in a televised debate on Tuesday night. Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will face off in a televised debate on Tuesday night. Reuters

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn went head-to-head on Tuesday in the first televised debate of the 2019 election campaign, covering issues including Brexit and the National Health Service.

The two party leaders, who have sparred only a handful of times in Parliament, are facing scrutiny over their plans for Brexit and public spending.

Mr Johnson, who took over as leader of the ruling Conservative party in July, has held a significant lead over Labour in opinion polls for weeks, making the December 12 election his to lose.

The debate presents a chance for the prime minister to shake off a rocky start in which the Conservatives have been put on the defensive by candidates’ gaffes and questions about Mr Johnson’s past relationship with US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri.

Mr Corbyn, meanwhile, is seeking to repeat the success of the last election in 2017 when his promise to end austerity and deliver change "for the many, not the few" fired up voters and denied the Tories an outright win.

Televised debates are a relatively new phenomenon in British elections.

The first took place in 2010 but proved the format could be hugely influential, propelling then-leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg into the position of deputy prime minister.

During Britain’s last election, in 2017, then-prime minister Theresa May refused to take part in a TV debate, reinforcing the view that she was a weak campaigner.

Mr Johnson fired the starting gun with a letter to the Labour leader overnight, questioning his plans for Britain's looming departure from the EU.

The Conservatives are campaigning on a pledge to "get Brexit done", promising to end years of political disagreement and several delays by leaving the EU on January 31.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson dons some boxing gloves for a 'sparring session' during a stop in his General Election Campaign trail at Jimmy Egan's Boxing Academy in Manchester om Tuesday. Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson dons some boxing gloves for a 'sparring session' during a stop in his General Election Campaign trail at Jimmy Egan's Boxing Academy in Manchester om Tuesday. Reuters

Mr Corbyn says he will renegotiate Mr Johnson's exit deal and hold another referendum, appealing to about half of Britons who still oppose the result of the 2016 Brexit vote.

But the Labour leader has yet to say how he would campaign in that referendum, and Mr Johnson warned in his letter that he offered only more "dither and delay".

On a visit to a boxing gym near the northern city of Manchester on Tuesday, the prime minister sparred in the ring wearing gloves emblazoned with the words "Get Brexit Done" and said he was excited about the fight with Mr Corbyn.

"Parliament is blocking Brexit. We need to get Brexit done so we can take forward our agenda for the whole country," he told ITV.

Meanwhile, Labour has sought to shift attention to inequality and the effect of a decade of Conservative spending cuts, promising to nationalise companies and a huge investment in public services.

Finance spokesman John McDonnell on Tuesday attacked the "obscene" disparities in workers' pay and unveiled plans for a new ratio of 20 to 1 between the top and lowest earners in public companies.

Mr McDonnell also announced proposals to transfer shares from large companies into an employee fund, and to break the hold of the "Big Four" major accountancy firms.

"We know whose side Boris Johnson is on: the billionaires, the bankers and big business," he said.

Mr Johnson says Labour would cripple the economy, although he has also promised more money for hospitals, schools and police, as well as infrastructure including broadband.

He and Mr Corbyn will answer questions submitted by viewers in front of a live audience, a format that had been challenged by some of the smaller parties.

A moving billboard bearing the face of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson passes the High Court in London as the UK's smaller parties bring a legal action after being excluded from Tuesday's debate. AFP
A moving billboard bearing the face of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson passes the High Court in London as the UK's smaller parties bring a legal action after being excluded from Tuesday's debate. AFP

The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party went to court to protest their exclusion from the debate but High Court judges rejected their case on Monday.

The next prime minister is almost certainly going to be either Mr Johnson or Mr Corbyn but the smaller parties could have a critical role to play, especially if they are given the chance to prop up a minority Labour government.

The Conservatives failed to win a majority of MPs in 2017, forcing them to agree to an alliance with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.

That arrangement collapsed in disputes over Brexit, leaving Mr Johnson without the support he needed to get his EU exit deal ratified by Parliament.

He has also faced a challenge from Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, although it has agreed not to field candidates in Tory-held seats.

Labour is languishing so far behind the Conservatives that polling expert John Curtice, from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, has suggested it has almost no chance of winning a majority.

Experts at UK think tank Chatham House said it was possible Britain was heading for a repeat of the 1983 general election, in which Margaret Thatcher strengthened her parliamentary majority despite her share of the overall vote decreasing.

But they cautioned that Britain could be left with a hung Parliament, saying almost a quarter of seat holders had only small majorities, with more than 50 of those being ultra-marginal seats with majorities from 2017 of less than 2 per cent.

Updated: November 20, 2019 01:07 AM

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