A score draw: Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. Photo: Jonathan Hordle / ITV via Getty Images
Election Notebook

The laughometer at the leaders’ debate

The issue being dodged by both Johnson and Corbyn was trust. Principally, the lack of it

The Conservative game plan was to make the first televised leaders’ debate all about Brexit and Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver it speedily. Labour’s strategy was to hammer home the pledge that the NHS was safe with Labour whilst being for sale under the Conservatives.

Yet, as the response from the studio audience emphasised, the underlying issue dodged by both men was the matter of trust. Principally, the lack of it. This was the first time in a televised leaders’ debate that the issue being picked over most repetitively in the ITV studio ‘Spin Room’, where watching journalists and party spokespeople collide, was which party leader was laughed at more.

An accurate ‘laughometer’ would probably have registered a score draw. Johnson pummelled Corbyn repeatedly on the Labour leader’s unwillingness to answer how he would vote in the second Brexit referendum that he was promising. It was remarkable that Corbyn had not rehearsed a more plausible answer to this question since Johnson had already publicised that he was going to ask it.

Johnson needed to know when he had won. Instead, his unremitting focus on Corbyn’s evasion after the audience had tired of the Labour leader’s refusal to answer the question gave the impression that the Prime Minister did not want to talk about anything else. There is a problem with making this election exclusively about Brexit, and it is that over the next three weeks a large proportion of the electorate will want to hear about other subjects – on many of which Labour is currently making the running.

Instead, Johnson found himself hoist by his own petard, failing to give a straight answer to the question of his own honesty by trying to deflect it back to Corbyn’s Brexit evasion. If there is any accusation not to dodge so ham-fistedly, it is whether you are a pretty straight kinda guy.

There may come a time in this campaign when the Labour leader’s relentless focus on Britain’s billionaires (all 150 of them) begins to appear a bit remote from most people’s lives

There were, of course, other issues. Corbyn’s Robespierre moment came in a question about the monarchy by answering dismissively that it was “in need of improvement.” Such dog-whistle republicanism is unlikely to charm the Middle England voters Labour requires every bit as much as the Tories need the blue-collar patriot voters of the North.

Corbyn’s claim that Britain was a “a society of billionaires and the very poor” was the binary view in which the prism of class struggle defines all. It gave no recognition of the existence of what Theresa May called the “just about managing” who regard themselves in neither category and are, in reality, the vast majority of the population. There may come a time in this campaign when the Labour leader’s relentless focus on Britain’s billionaires (all 150 of them) begins to appear a bit remote from most people’s lives.

Back in the Spin Room, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was pressing home the message that “Corbyn couldn’t answer the basic question of this campaign, which is on trust.”  Speaking to The Critic, Conservative Brexiteer Nigel Evans was even more vehement about the Labour leader’s evasion, stating that “where he says he’ll get Brexit sorted, he means Brexit killed.”

There are six more televised debates, in various formats, before election day. Will this contest rise beyond an equality of ridicule over the trust deficit? Specifically, can Johnson move beyond what his team are focussed on as the core message. “Get Brexit Done” has a clarity of intent that “Strong and Stable” lacked. But the repetitiveness with which Theresa May returned to that slogan as the quack-cure for all ills drove the 2017 electorate to despair. Johnson has made his point. Voters want a greatest hits album, not a one hit wonder.

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