Boris Johnson is doing battle with Jeremy Corbyn for Britain’s future tonight as they face off in a crunch TV election debate.
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. Mr Johnson insisted is is determined to ‘get Brexit done’ – while Mr Corbyn said he was offering ‘real change’.
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.
But Mr Corbyn’s team know his underdog status means 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.
The hour-long programme in Salford is being refereed by Julie Etchingham. The first half will focus on Brexit, before the debate moves on to wider policy issues.
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.
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
The ITV set where the two party leaders are due to face off in Salford later tonight as the election battle heats up
Mr Corbyn posed for photographs with members of the public as he arrived for the debate in Salford tonight
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
Mr Johnson was in fighting mood earlier as he visited Jimmy Egan’s Boxing Academy in Manchester – where Tyson Fury trains
Nigel Farage was trying to keep his spirits up in Peterborough today as he joined Brexit Party candidate Mike Greene on the campaign trail
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.
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 Jeremy 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 is the first time the two largest party leaders have squared off on live television in an election debate.
Mr Johnson headed for the North West this morning, being pictured at Euston station with partner Carrie Symonds.
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.
‘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 – will be split into two halves, with the first devoted to Brexit.
Boris Johnson with partner Carrie Symonds prepare to board a train to Manchester for the debate this morning
Both men will be hoping to avoid being on the ropes in tonight’s leaders’ debate (pictured is Mr Johnson trying his hand at boxing earlier)
Baggage: The PM appeared heavily laden with a personal bag as well as a ministerial red box of documents
Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn opted for a more leisurely pre-debate routine, visiting a barber for a beard trim before he appears in front of the cameras
Mr Corbyn, pictured leaving his North London home this morning, must make an impression with his party trailing in the polls
Both sides believe that the debate is likely 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 will hammer his opponent on Brexit, Tory strategists are urging him to also use the debate to paint a positive vision of life after Brexit.
He will stress his commitment to investing in public services like the NHS, schools and the police.
Mr Corbyn will attempt to press Mr Johnson on the fate of the NHS in a post-Brexit trade deal.
The debate will be broadcast on ITV live and led by presenter Julie Etchingham, pictured posing on the set
Now that’s an EU turn: In his own flip-flopping words, how Jeremy’s story keeps changing
Analysis by Ross Clark
When asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday whether he wanted to leave the EU or remain in it, Jeremy Corbyn refused to answer five times. So what does the Labour leader, who was once an ardent Eurosceptic but has since called for a second referendum, really believe?
What he is saying now:
‘We’re going to put that choice to the British people and they will make that decision,’ he told Marr when asked if he wants to Leave or Remain.
What he has said in past:
Outlining his vision for ‘Britain after Brexit’ in a speech in February last year, Corbyn claimed Labour would see Brexit through. He said: ‘Labour respects the result of the referendum and Britain is leaving the EU.’
Jeremy Corbyn, pictured at the CBI conference in London on Monday, has continued to switch his position on Brexit
‘Three years after the EU referendum, the country stands at a precipice,’ Corbyn told The Observer in September, commenting on how he planned to thwart a No Deal Brexit. ‘[Boris Johnson] has no right to drive our country off a cliff and into the arms of Donald Trump with his No Deal fixation.’
In the past:
For many years Corbyn advocated leaving the EU, deal or no deal. In 1993 he told Parliament that the Maastrict Treaty, which ratified further European integration, ‘takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment throughout the European Community’. Corbyn ultimately voted against the treaty, just as he had voted to leave the then Common Market in the first EU referendum in 1975.
‘I want a close relationship with the EU in future,’ Corbyn told Marr.
In the past:
Corbyn certainly didn’t want ‘a close relationship with the EU’ in 1996 when he described it as a ‘European bureaucracy totally unaccountable to anybody’. Indeed, as late as June 2015 – just a year before the referendum – he wrote in a blog for the Huffington Post website that ‘there is no future for a usurious Europe that turns its smaller nations into colonies of debt peonage’.
The leader of the opposition, pictured at the CBI conference in London on Monday, said in 1996 that he didn’t want a close relationship with the EU. However, on the Andrew Marr programme he said he did want a close relationship with the trade bloc
Speaking to the BBC ahead of the Labour conference in September, Corbyn laid out his vision for a future relationship with the EU: ‘We have consistently put forward what I believe to be a credible option, which is based on five pillars – the customs union, the trade relationship, protection of consumer and environmental rights, and, of course, the Good Friday agreement.’
In the past:
In 2008 when then Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked the Commons to approve the Lisbon Treaty, which centralised EU power, Corbyn reminded Parliament that the EU had ‘always suffered a serious democratic deficit’ and promoted ‘ever-limiting powers for national parliaments and an increasingly powerful common foreign and security policy’.
‘My whole strategy has been to try to bring people together on both sides of the argument,’ he told Marr.
In the past:
For the majority of his parliamentary career, Corbyn’s remarks were anything but unifying. Even during his campaign to be Labour leader in 2015, Corbyn didn’t mince his words. At one hustings, he said: ‘I’m concerned about the way that European Union is increasingly operating like a free market across Europe, tearing up the Social Chapter, damaging working-class and workers’ interests across Europe… ‘
At another point during that campaign, he said: ‘If Europe becomes a totally brutal organisation that treats every one of its member states in the way that the people of Greece have been treated at the moment, then I think Europe will lose a lot of support from a lot of people.’