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Media General Election

Five things the Johnson v Corbyn TV debate told us about this election campaign

By Tim Saunders, director of political strategy

November 20, 2019 | 8 min read

Tim Saunders, a director in Grayling’s public affairs team, gets under the skin of the first head-to-head debate betwene Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn to find out what it can tell us about the rest of the general election campaign.

Boris Johnson Jeremy Corbyn

Last night’s debate was seen as a score draw between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, and many have already written it off as an evening that failed to shift the dial in either direction. But it also provided us with a rich seam of clues about the parties’ campaigns – as well as the men leading them – that will have a crucial bearing on the final result.

This is already a very different election to 2017. During that fateful campaign, Theresa May shied away from TV debates and was accused of consciously evading scrutiny. The participation of Boris Johnson in last night’s debate showed that his campaign, under the leadership of election guru Isaac Levido, is looking to do things differently.

So what else has changed?

Here are five things that the debate told us about how this election might play out.

1. Johnson is going all in on Brexit, but Corbyn's 'NHS Trump deal' claim may be resonating

It is difficult to count the number of times Boris Johnson promised to “Get Brexit Done” while also attempting to expose the uncertainties of Jeremy Corbyn’s position on the EU. Johnson tried to pivot back to the issue in almost every answer he gave. But while he succeeded in securing a few rounds of applause and some choice soundbites for the news bulletins, the audience in the room grew impatient and were audibly groaning by his closing statement, when he once again pressed the issue.

Corbyn’s claims that the Conservatives were planning a post-Brexit sale of the NHS to Donald Trump elicited a notably strong rebuttal from Johnson. This, and the party’s other rebuttals online, suggest that the Conservatives are worried that this attack line is diluting their core campaign message and may be resonating with the Brexit-voting Labour voters they are hoping to woo. They want to kill it, and fast.

2. The Conservative campaign will need more substance to be sustainable

While the Vote Leave campaign managed to successfully drill its “Take Back Control” message into the minds of voters, we have to remember that was a referendum on a single issue. With three and a half weeks to go, Johnson risks making the same mistake as Theresa May did in 2017, when she called an election that was ostensibly about Brexit, ran out of things to say about it, and let Labour rule the airwaves with a slew of popular domestic policies.

With the Conservative manifesto being launched in the coming days, Boris Johnson will need some appealing doorstep policies to make a broader offer to voters who are increasingly sick of Brexit – as the audience illustrated last night.

3. Corbyn is at his best when he makes public services personal

Why do we remember Theresa May telling us there was “no magic money tree” during the last general election? It was less the words in the answer she gave than the question it was in response to: an NHS nurse who hadn’t seen a pay increase in nearly a decade. Set against the nurse’s distress, May’s answer seemed exceptionally heartless and aloof.

While much of his delivery was dry and stilted yesterday (and his likeability ratings were far below those of Johnson), Jeremy Corbyn achieved the only truly emotional moment of the evening when he spoke about a close friend he had recently lost to breast cancer, who had been left waiting for a hospital appointment for eight hours. In doing so, he showed the power of using personal stories to illustrate what public services mean to real people. Polling carried out after the debate showed that significantly more people thought Corbyn was “in touch”, an advantage he will be looking to press home in the coming weeks.

4. Boris Johnson struggles to relate to voters

While David Cameron would always talk touchingly about his late son Ivan’s experiences with the NHS, this is an area in which Johnson struggles to make things personal; last night he took to reeling off investment figures.

This has the potential to cost him dearly, particularly when he meets with voters on the campaign trail who have personal stories to share on the state of public services (as happened when an angry father confronted him in Whipps Cross hospital just a few weeks ago). It is those chance encounters with voters that often produce the rare moments of cut through in an election campaign.

5. The Conservatives are bringing the economy back into play

During the last election, the Conservatives made the fatal error of failing to produce any costings for their manifesto, in stark contrast to Labour. Furthermore, Theresa May’s team was reluctant to credit some of the country’s economic successes to the Cameron/Osborne years, including record employment, and was slow to point out the economic flaws with Labour’s programme.

It seems that the new campaign team has learned from these mistakes. Johnson not only hammered home the old mantra of “a strong economy means strong public services”, but he also stuck the dagger into Labour on their plans for a four-day working week. As Corbyn fumbled around for what turned out to be a less than credible answer, the laughter emanating from the audience showed that Johnson’s line of attack had struck a chord.

With both parties promising to loosen fiscal rules next year, the Conservatives want to highlight clear blue water between their own spending plans and the comparative profligacy of Jeremy Corbyn. Expect to hear Johnson’s claim that Labour is producing a “magic money forest” repeated ad nauseum over the next three weeks.

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