The TV Debate

Election 2019

It was not until fairly recently that UK voters have been exposed to televised election debates. While they have been a staple part of US presidential elections since the Kennedy-Nixon era, the first UK General Election debate was not held until 2010. Back then, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown battled it out over the recession and foreign policy. Fast forward nine years and it was Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn’s turn to try and win voters through this medium.

It is safe to say that UK television channels are yet to fully master the format for these debates, especially when compared to the slick shows that operate on the other side of the Atlantic. As such, their impact has tended to be less significant to the final outcome of a UK General Election. Nevertheless, Theresa May’s decision to avoid the debates at the 2017 General Election were on of the reasons given for the ultimate loss of her majority.

Yet, last night’s debate seemingly failed to buck this trend with neither party leader displaying the kind of dominance that might ignite their campaign. While both parties have since claimed outright victory, none of last night’s laboured questions and scripted responses have done much to change the narrative of this fractious, and as yet unsurprising, election. With the polls after the debate showing a 50/50 split in public opinion on who won, it seems the public were equally uninspired by a relatively tame debate.

The NHS and Brexit
The opening round of the debate was dominated by questions on Brexit and the NHS. Mr Johnson argued that a Conservative win on December 12th would allow him to pass his ‘oven-ready’ deal through Parliament and take the UK out of the EU. Mr Corbyn said he would reject Mr Johnson’s agreement and negotiate a new deal with the EU, with a customs union and a closer relationship with the single market, which would then be put to a public vote with an option to remain in the EU.

As expected, Mr Johnson attacked his rival on the ambiguity he maintained over whether he would campaign to leave or remain during this confirmatory referendum. In response, Mr Corbyn redirected the line of questioning towards the NHS, and whether US health firms would be given access to the NHS in a US-UK trade deal. The Prime Minister dismissed the claims as ‘an absolute invention’.

It’s a question of trust
Much has been made of the toxic atmosphere that has dominated UK politics over the recent months with both parties being accused of allowing insensitive debate and harmful language to take hold of the political narrative. When asked on the subject, the Prime Minister said this environment had been caused by MPs ‘repeatedly refusing to honour the referendum.’ The Labour leader promised to bring a new style of leadership, one that would ‘listen to people and try to bring consensus.’

Perhaps the most revealing moments of the debate came not from the party leaders themselves, but from the response of the live audience. Crowd members laughed off the Prime Minister’s commitment to telling the truth during his campaign, while others laughed at Mr Corbyn’s statements on Labour’s proposal for a reduced working week and his party’s Brexit stance.

The most significant controversy of the debate was not anything that was said on stage. Whilst the party leaders were being quizzed on the importance of honesty and integrity in politics, the Conservative Campaign twitter account was rebranded as ‘factcheckUK’. While there was some disclaimer as to the political affiliations of the account, the overall branding and name change was clearly designed to imitate a non-partisan political fact checking service.

This provoked a massive outcry from opposition representatives and political commentators, with Labour claiming it was an intention to “dupe” the public. The Liberal Democrats have called on the Electoral Commission to intervene over the matter. The Conservative has dismissed criticism of the move, stating that it was designed to rebuke the Labour Party’s claims about the NHS.

Christmas and the monarchy
As the fifty minutes of stop-start debate drew to a close, host Julie Etchingham threw some quick-fire questions at the hopefuls. When asked if the monarchy was fit for purpose, particularly following recent controversies related to Prince Andrew, Mr Corbyn remarked that it needed ‘a bit of improvement’, while Mr Johnson stated that ‘the institution of the monarchy is beyond reproach.’

The final question pushed the leaders to say what non-political Christmas present they would give each other. Mr Corbyn said he would get the PM a copy of Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Mr Johnson initially said he would buy the Labour leader ‘a copy of my brilliant Brexit deal’, but when pushed to give a non-political answer, he said he would get some damson jam for his rival. After Corbyn declared that he could make his own, the hurt-sounding PM said, ‘He doesn’t even want my damson jam.’ This futile line of questioning was perhaps the most fitting way to end a debate which failed to capture the imagination of its audience.