Boris Johnson edged a bruising first election TV debate tonight as Jeremy Corbyn was jeered by the audience for refusing nine times to spell out his position on Brexit.
With just over three weeks until the nation goes to the ballot boxes, the two leaders exchanged vicious barbs in the ITV special – but a poll suggested they fought each other effectively to a standstill.
A snap YouGov survey found 51 per cent thought Mr Johnson triumphed, with 49 per cent saying Mr Corbyn came out on top.
During the hour-long debate Mr Johnson insisted he is determined to ‘get Brexit done’, and warned that all Labour had to offer was ‘dither and delay, deadlock and division’ by calling another referendum.
Despite their increasingly bitter rowing, at one point Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn paused to shake hands after being entreated to raise the tone of politics
The hour-long election debate took place in a glitzy studio set up by ITV at studios in Salford this evening and was a high-tempered affair
The two leaders exchanged vicious barbs in the ITV special – but a poll suggested they fought each other effectively to a standstill
‘We don’t know on which side Mr Corbyn will campaign. Will he campaign for Leave or Remain?’ he demanded, saying there was a ‘void at the heart of his policy.’
The audience in Salford laughed when Mr Corbyn claimed to have been ‘clear’ despite repeatedly ducking the question on whether he would support Leave or Remain.
The premier also laid into the veteran left-winger for doing a ‘deal’ with Nicola Sturgeon, saying he would need SNP support to govern – and was willing to meet their red line of allowing a new Scottish independence referendum.
During the hour-long debate Mr Johnson insisted he is determined to ‘get Brexit done’, and warned that all Labour had to offer was ‘dither and delay, deadlock and division’
The audience in Salford laughed when Mr Corbyn claimed to have been ‘clear’ despite repeatedly ducking the question on whether he would support Leave or Remain
Despite the hostiluty
And he said there had been a ‘failure in leadership’ by Mr Corbyn in tackling a wave of vile anti-Semitism that has been wracking his party.
But in bad-tempered exchanges – with each frequently being told off by presenter Julie Etchingham for overrunning their 30 seconds for an initial response to questions – Mr Corbyn said he was offering ‘real change’ and would deliver ‘for the many’.
He said he would negotiate another deal, a referendum would happen within six months, and he would ‘implement the choice’.
He said: ‘We will negotiate an agreement and we will put that alongside Remain in a referendum and our government will abide by that result. There will be a genuine choice put before the people of Britain and we will carry that out.’
Carrie Symonds leaving after the debate ended. The debate was held at ITV Studios at Media City, just weeks before the election
Mr Johnson insisted is is determined to ‘get Brexit done’, and warned that all Labour had to offer was ‘dither and delay, deadlock and division’ with more referendums. Mr Corbyn said he was offering ‘real change’ and would deliver ‘for the many’
With just over three weeks to go until the nation goes to the ballot boxes, the two leaders drew battle lines in the ITV special as they set out their pitch to voters
A snap YouGov survey found 51 per cent thought Mr Johnson triumphed, with 49 per cent saying Mr Corbyn came out on top
Mr Corbyn, who appeared to be struggling with a cold, also prompted laughter when he tried to defend what Mr Johnson described as Labour’s ‘crackpot plan’ for a four-day working week.
Mr Corbyn said: ‘It is about reducing the working week all across the economy, paid for by productivity increases all across Britain.’
At one stage Mr Johnson quipped that the Labour leader had ‘found a magic money forest’ as they were both accused of splurging money.
However, Mr Johnson was also heckled as he insisted on turning the discussion back to Brexit at all opportunities. And the PM – who is in the process of divorcing his second wife – dodged directly answering a query about the importance of personal integrity.
The pair clashed bitterly over the NHS, with Mr Corbyn accusing the government of wanting to ‘sell out’ the health service in a trade deal with the US. He waved around a sheaf of FOI requests he said demonstrated there had been ‘secret meetings’.
Mr Johnson insisted the idea was ‘total invention’.
‘It is completely untrue. There are no circumstances whatever in which this Government or any Conservative government will put the NHS on the table in any trade negotiation,’ he said.
He said the NHS was ‘one of the single most brilliant and beautiful things about this country’.
Both men were subject to anger in the studio, with one member of the audience called Fahad raging that they had ‘degraded’ the debate and adding: ‘How can this nation trust you?’
Despite their increasingly bitter rowing, at one point Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn paused to shake hands after being entreated to raise the tone of politics.
During a quickfire round of questions, the leaders were asked whether they thought the monarchy was ‘fit for purpose’.
‘It needs a bit of improvement,’ Mr Corbyn said.
The PM responded: ‘The institution of the monarchy is beyond reproach.’
But asked by Etchingham whether they thought Prince Andrew, who has been embroiled in scandal over his BBC interview about his links to Jeffrey Epstein, Mr Corbyn said there were ‘very serious questions that need to be answered’.
And Mr Johnson said; ‘The law must certainly take its course.’
Mr Corbyn, asked to rule out a second Scottish independence referendum before the end of the first year of a Labour government, said: ‘I’ve said there would be no deal with the SNP, there would be no support for a Scottish referendum in the early years of the next Labour government because I want to invest in Scotland and give Scotland the £70billion it needs in capital investment.’
He said it was ‘their choice’ if the SNP leadership ‘chooses to put the Conservative government back in office’.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson answers questions during the ITV Leaders Debate at Media Centre in Salford last night
Leader of the main opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn during an election head-to-head debate against Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Mr Johnson retorted: ‘I listened very carefully as I always do to Mr Corbyn – I didn’t hear him say he was going to rule out a referendum on Scotland. Did you?’
The Prime Minister claimed his Brexit deal allows the whole of the UK to come out of the EU, adding: ‘Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the UK. It’s there in black and white.’
The snap poll by YouGov – who interviewed 1,646 people – estimated that 51 per cent of the public believed Mr Johnson won the debate compared to 49 per cent for Mr Corbyn.
Those who answered ‘don’t know’ were removed from the result, with the result well within the margin of error.
The detailed findings showed that Mr Corbyn was seen as marginally more trustworthy – by 45 per cent to 40 per cent and more in touch with ‘ordinary people’.
But Mr Johnson was more likeable by 54 per cent to 37 per cent, and seen as more prime ministerial by 54 per cent to 29 per cent.
The PM was viewed as having performed best on Brexit by a big margin of 63 per cent to 27 per cent, and on government spending by 50 per cent to 35 per cent.
Mr Corbyn did outperform Mr Johnson on perceptions of the NHS exchanges, by 54 per cent to 38 per cent.
Chris Curtis, YouGov’s political research manager, said: ‘Our snap poll shows that the public is divided on who won the debate, with most Labour voters thinking Jeremy Corbyn won, most Conservative voters thinking Boris Johnson won, and very few people changing their minds.
‘But given the Conservatives went into this debate in the lead, they will hope the lack of a knockout blow means they can maintain this until voting day.’
Speaking after the debate, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said: ‘Well, there is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn is a better debater than Boris Johnson.
‘But on the key issue of the day, Brexit, nine times Jeremy Corbyn would not say as Prime Minister that a second referendum that he’d call, whether he’d vote Leave or Remain. ‘That is a failure of leadership.’
The PM was handed a major boost earlier with a poll showing the Tories surging into an 18-point lead over Labour, helped by crumbling Brexit Party support – enough to give him the outright majority he craves.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn shook hands on stage at tonight’s TV debate as they promised to restore trust in British politics
But Mr Corbyn’s team were aware that his underdog status meant that even just holding his own in the exchanges this evening could help turn the tables.
It is the first time in UK political history that the two prospective candidates for PM have gone head-to-head on television during a campaign. In 2010, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg were involved in the equivalent battle.
A dramatic Kantar poll published earlier found the Tories were up eight points on 45 per cent, with Labour trailing far behind and stalled on 27 per cent.
Most of the Conservative advance over the past week was down to plummeting ratings for the Brexit Party.
It was down seven points to just 2 per cent after Nigel Farage withdrew more than half his candidates to avoid splitting the Eurosceptic vote on December 12.
The lead would be enough to deliver a big majority for Mr Johnson if it was replicated evenly across the country.
However, a separate survey for YouGov was slightly less rosy for the Tories – showing their advantage coming down from 17 points at the end of last week to a still healthy 12 points.
Mr Johnson travelled with his partner Carrie Symonds to the event – their first joint appearance of the election campaign.
This morning the premier posed in Jimmy Egan’s Boxing Academy in Manchester – with ‘Get Brexit Done’ across his boxing gloves.
Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn opted for a more leisurely pre-debate routine, posting pictures of himself visiting a barber for a beard trim.
As he arrived at the venue this evening he said he had braced himself for the face-off by ‘eating a Caesar salad’ and ‘drinking cups of tea’.
Mr Johnson has promised to launch a full-frontal political attack on Mr Corbyn with an ultimatum to stop ‘dithering’ on his Brexit plans.
But Mr Corbyn is laying out a populist hard-Left platform, after he pledged to spend up to £100billion nationalising chunks of BT to provide free broadband for everyone.
In fresh evidence that Labour is abandoning the traditional centre ground, shadow chancellor John McDonnell today vowed to target ‘obscene’ billionaires, force private firms to slash pay for top executives, and oust companies from the London Stock Exchange if they do not meet climate change targets.
The Prime Minister issued a challenge to his Labour counterpart warning that failure to answer on key points would leave the public with ‘no choice but to conclude that Corbyn’s Labour, propped up by the SNP, will mean dither, delay and uncertainty’.
In a letter published by the Tories last night he set Mr Corbyn four questions to answer: how he would vote in a second Brexit referendum, what Labour’s position on freedom of movement is, how much he would pay the EU for ‘market access’, and whether all of his MPs would back his Brexit policy.
The Kantar poll this evening found the Tories were up eight points on 45 per cent, with Labour trailing far behind and stalled on 27 per cent
Tory sources said the Prime Minister would use the debate to hammer home his central message that only the Conservatives can be relied upon to deliver Brexit – while also raising concerns about Labour’s opposition to immigration controls.
But Mr McDonnell made clear that Labour is also spoiling for a fight, declaring war on the wealthy and business in a speech in London earlier.
He vowed to target ‘obscene’ billionaires, force private firms to slash pay for top executives, and oust companies from the London Stock Exchange if they do not meet climate change targets.
In a fresh lurch to the Left, the shadow chancellor said it was ‘obscene’ that people could become billionaires, saying ‘no-one deserves to have that kind of money’.
The veteran socialist said bosses at firms with public sector contracts should not be paid more than around £350,000.
He hailed Labour’s proposals to force medium-sized firms to give 10 per cent of their shares to workers, and bolster union power by having a third of their board made up of staff. Companies who fail to meet objectives to tackle climate change also faced being ‘delisted’ from the stock exchange.
And Mr McDonnell vowed to neuter the ‘Big Four’ accountancy companies, saying he would create a new state-backed auditor to stop them behaving like a ‘cartel’.
The assault on corporate governance provoked alarm among business groups, who warned that Labour risks ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ and trying to manage the economy ‘by diktat’.
The extraordinary platform is more evidence that Labour is gearing up to unveil a much more dramatic manifesto on Thursday than their offering two years ago.
Last week Mr Corbyn pledged to nationalise huge chunks of BT and offer free broadband to every household – despite warnings it would cost £100billion and require the state to take control of huge swathes of other businesses such as Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Sky.
Tonight’s ITV debate from Salford was the first time the two largest party leaders have squared off on live television in an election debate.
Previous debates have featured a wider array of leaders, but Theresa May refused to take part ahead of the 2017 election where she lost the Tory majority.
One ally of the PM acknowledged that it was a ‘risk’ to take on an opponent who is lagging far behind in the polls.
Mr Corbyn posed for photographs with members of the public as he arrived for the debate in Salford tonight
‘Corbyn has nothing to lose,’ the source said.
‘I’ll be sleeping a lot easier once it’s over.’
The Liberal Democrats and SNP yesterday lost a High Court challenge to have Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon included in the debate. The two parties claimed ITV’s decision was unlawful because it breached impartiality rules. Lawyers for the Lib Dems claimed that with Labour sitting on the fence on Brexit, ‘the voice of Remain has been excluded’ from the debate.
But two judges ruled that the decision was not open to challenge in the courts and that the parties’ only recourse was to complain to Ofcom.
Tonight’s hour-long debate – with Julie Etchingham as the moderator – was split into two halves, with the first devoted to Brexit.
Both sides expected the debate to be the first time that many voters engage with the election arguments.
The first televised election debates in 2010 attracted audiences of close to ten million.
Tory strategists have told Mr Johnson to go after Mr Corbyn over his attempt to sit on the fence during the Brexit debate.
In his letter to Mr Corbyn last night, the PM said voters had a ‘right to know’ what Labour planned to do on key issues facing the country.
He added: ‘So far in this campaign, you have ducked those questions.’
While Mr Johnson hammered his opponent on Brexit, Tory strategists also urged him to also use the debate to paint a positive vision of life after Brexit.
He stressed his commitment to investing in public services like the NHS, schools and the police.
Boris Johnson had it all to lose – and though both sides will claim a moral victory his team will now breathe easier says STEPHEN GLOVER for the Daily Mail
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn travelled to Salford to take part in last night’s leadership debate in front of a studio audience of some 200 people, and millions of television viewers, in very different political circumstances.
The Labour leader unquestionably arrived as the underdog. His personal ratings are lower than for any other political leader in living memory.
His party may have gained a few points at the expense of the Lib Dems in recent weeks, but it has so far failed to make any inroads against the Tories.
The detailed findings showed that Mr Corbyn was seen as marginally more trustworthy – by 45 per cent to 40 per cent and more in touch with ‘ordinary people’
Moreover, he hasn’t enjoyed the most inspired of campaigns while trying to bamboozle the electorate with increasingly far-fetched financial inducements.
He can also appear unappealingly testy when put under pressure, as he showed in a recent interview on Channel 4 News.
But Boris, despite being the favoured contender, will have caused advisers some palpitations during intense rehearsals for the ITV shoot-out. He is sometimes vague and waffly when pressed on facts and, although he is far cleverer than Mr Corbyn, his mind does not always operate swiftly when his back is against the wall.
His aides must have also hoped that the Prime Minister wouldn’t come across as an entitled and arrogant Old Etonian and former Oxford University ‘Bullingdon boy’ patronising the older, and in many ways less gifted, Labour leader.
Many Conservative supporters will have had their hearts in the mouths as the debate kicked off at 8pm yesterday. Would Boris somehow contrive to undermine the Tories’ advantage?
In the event, the gladiatorial contest probably came out much as the leaders’ respective sidekicks would have expected. Of course, each side will claim a moral victory as is inevitably the case on such occasions, with spin doctors offering frantic and wildly partisan briefings at the end of play.
I’d say Mr Johnson performed at least as well as his cheerleaders could have hoped, and avoided the gaffes some of them may have feared. He was at times eloquent, always energetic, and exuded the optimism which is undoubtedly part of his electoral appeal.
He also went out of his way to be polite to his opposite number and, when the occasion arose, bounded to shake his hand with more exuberance and good grace than, for his part, Mr Corbyn showed. Nor was he often at a loss for a cogent answer.
Meanwhile, although the Labour leader hardly made a hash of things, whether his, and his party’s, standing in the country will have improved may be seriously doubted. He was often his curmudgeonly, slightly schoolmasterly, tired-looking and sometimes evasive self.
On Brexit, which dominated the first part of the proceedings — and to which subject Mr Johnson returned whenever he could — the PM was admirably single-minded about his ‘oven-ready’ deal which ‘delivers everything we wanted’.
By contrast, although he was pressed several times, Mr Corbyn refused to say whether he would campaign for or against the deal with the EU, which he claims he could negotiate in a matter of only three months.
So three-and-a-half years after the EU referendum, the country still doesn’t know what the leader of the Opposition thinks about Brexit. He had the brass neck repeatedly to use the word ‘clear’ to describe a policy that is about as murky as it could be — on one occasion attracting laughter.
All he could do to distract attention from his confusion was to repeat the lie that the NHS was up for sale to the U.S. in a future trade deal, which Mr Johnson emphatically, and I thought convincingly, denied. Mr Corbyn even asserted that such a deal would take seven years to complete. Where did he pluck that figure from?
Of course, the Labour leader made his usual comments about a divided society, and ‘the tax cuts that have been handed to the super rich’ — all of which will resonate well in some quarters.
But on the potentially delicate subject of the NHS — over which the Tories have, after all, presided for more than nine years — I don’t think Mr Corbyn was able to establish the advantage that he would have hoped.
He was also characteristically slippery about any possible future parliamentary pact that Labour might make with the Scottish Nationalists over a second independence referendum, saying only that it was not a matter that he would address ‘in the early years’ of a Labour government.
Needless to say, there were many subjects that did not come up in the relatively short time available — and which might have exposed Mr Corbyn’s dangerously revolutionary ideas.
There was no mention of Nato, or Britain’s unilateral nuclear deterrent, which Mr Corbyn seems ready to negotiate away.
Anti-Semitism — over which Labour is desperately vulnerable — received only a glancing reference, as did immigration, where Labour appears keen to adopt an open-door policy without admitting as much.
But on such policies that did come up, Boris Johnson was generally the master of his brief. He was funny, too, and got more laughs than Corbyn.
He quipped that the Labour leader had not just a money tree but a ‘money forest’. And under the eye of the always steely and glacially competent moderator, Julie Etchingham, he suggested that he might put a jar of damson jam under Mr Corbyn’s Christmas tree.
For all the media razzmatazz surrounding these events, I don’t suppose that what happened last night in Salford will affect the outcome of the election in any very significant way. And that will be a relief to both parties. Survival is, above all other considerations, the main object of the exercise.
After Theresa May had ignominiously ducked a debate during the 2017 election campaign, Boris knew that he had to show up on this occasion. He and his supporters will be relieved that, far from blotting his copy-book, he put in a more than solid performance.
As for Mr Corbyn, he failed to change the political weather. Such a prize has been attained only once before in a similar debate by Nick Clegg, the then Lib Dem leader, during the 2010 general election campaign.
Now both men will prepare themselves for a rematch under the auspices of the BBC on December 6, only six days before election day. The stakes will be even higher than they were last night. The two leaders will want to exchange the knock-out blows that neither of them succeeded in landing in Salford.
But, on this showing, I believe that Boris Johnson will have advanced his cause in the public mind as someone who can deliver Brexit — an issue which continues to cloud Mr Corbyn’s mind — and govern as a prime minister who is competent, human and down to earth.
With nearly three weeks to go, much can still go wrong. Perhaps it will. But after the PM’s bullish performance last night, I confess I am more optimistic about the outcome than I have so far been.