7 December 2019

The debate we didn’t see

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The great unwritten secret of political punditry is that many of the moments us anoraks get excited over don’t actually matter very much. But with just a few days until polling day, last night’s hour of prime time election debate could have been one of the few that really do.

In the end, I suspect few voters will have had their minds radically changed by what they saw. Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn operated largely within their respective comfort zones. Mr Corbyn played his usual tune about austerity, inequality and the NHS, while Mr Johnson circled back with unerring regularity to the enticing prospect of ‘getting Brexit done’.

Post-debate polls suggested Mr Johnson slightly edged it with viewers, with the Tory leader seen as stronger on Brexit, and Mr Corbyn ahead on the health service. Analysts like to mull over who has ‘won’ a debate, but for the public that depends as much on the issues they personally value as any kind of objective assessment of the candidates’ performances.

Though there will be few champagne corks popping at Tory HQ just yet, the PM’s team can reflect on a banana skin avoided. Though not a terrible performance from Mr Corbyn, the onus was on him to land a decisive blow and in that respect he failed.

The man who arguably emerged best from the encounter was BBC host Nick Robinson, who exuded a calm authority without any of the kind of attention-grabbing antics we see far too often from some TV presenters. The format was also far better than ITV’s debate, with each man given a bit more time to set out their positions.

But even with that extra leeway, there were huge areas of policy that were more or less ignored.  We heard nothing, for instance, on either housing or social care, two of the great domestic social and economic issues of our era. From a purely tactical point of view, one can forgive the Tories steering clear of the latter, given how the ‘Dementia Tax’ upended Theresa May two years ago.

Nor would a viewer unfamiliar with British politics have realised that one of the two men on stage wants to renationalise rail, mail, water and energy, turning back the tide on economic liberalisation. Mr Johnson resisted any attacks on this area, probably aware that though wrongheaded, those policies are popular with a lot of his target voters.

And what about foreign policy? Given that one candidate plans to take us out of the EU, and the other has a range of frankly extraordinary anti-Western allegiances and positions, that felt like an under-exploited area of debate. Especially so in a week when the UK has hosted a major Nato summit.

Speaking of allegiances, one of the few really telling moments of the night was the Prime Minister reminding the crowd of Mr Corbyn’s steadfast support for the IRA (a claim the Labour leader didn’t even bother trying to rebut).

Ultimately then, a score draw – and one that leaves us none the wiser, either about next Thursday’s result, or the battles to come for whoever forms the next government.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX