Johnson v Corbyn: who won the final debate?

Peter Walker Political correspondent

This was billed as the final showdown – or at least the final chance for Jeremy Corbyn to shift the polls away from bookmakers’ predictions of a Boris Johnson majority. As such, the stakes were high, and the setting dramatic, with the two party leaders almost facing each behind lecterns. So who came out on top, and will it make any difference?

Overall pitch

Corbyn: Serious, sober and worried about Johnson’s plans. This was the Labour leader tying to show a prime-time audience he is not the frightening radical of tabloid lore. Refusing to rise to Johnson’s occasional jibes, Corbyn kept pushing home the same points, many connected to austerity and poverty. There was still the occasional more dramatic touch, like a brief flourish of the leaked Treasury document about the Northern Irish border.

Johnson: A door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman desperate to seal a deal he believes is almost there. Lots of eye contact, use of questioners’ names, and just an occasional touch of polite desperation. It could have been the format, or a change of approach, but the PM seemed to spend less time trying to wind down the clock with endless, meandering answers, or talking over other people. But he did regularly attack his opponent, not always factually.

Best line

Corbyn: “We cannot go on saying we represent the 48% or the 52%. I want to lead a government that represents the whole county.” A neatly turned phrase from the Labour leader on one of his more tricky subjects – the party’s Brexit semi-fudge.

Johnson: “It’s pure Bermuda Triangle stuff. We’ll be hearing about little green men next.” A previously used line seeking to dismiss the idea the NHS will be up for grabs in future US trade talks, but brought a laugh from the audience and had the benefit of being memorable (at least for those old enough to know what the Bermuda Triangle is).

Strategy

Corbyn: Twofold: repeatedly ram home messages on austerity, spending cuts and child poverty, while also regularly wheeling out attack lines against Johnson, notably the idea of the US wanting access to the NHS, and the length of time a US trade deal would take. Under Johnson’s plan, he said, the US would “walk out of a relationship with the EU and into a relationship with nobody”. The Labour leader provided a fair degree of granular detail, and was less soundbite-heavy than Johnson – though that was not difficult.

Johnson: Repeat the core messages. And then repeat them some more. And a few more times in case any viewers were making a cup of tea or had gone to the loo. Beyond that, try to say nothing interesting, let alone newsworthy. Johnson used the key phrase “Get Brexit done” twice in his opening statement, and twice more in the next couple of minutes, with an “unleash the potential of the country” for good measure. Apart from this, Johnson was light on detail and, for all his attacks on Corbyn about his supposed closeness to the IRA and his Brexit policy, he felt a bit on the defensive a fair bit of the time.

Worst moment

Corbyn: Possibly when he was quizzed in some depth about criticisms of some of the figures behind the Labour manifesto, with host Nick Robinson noting the doubts of people like the IFS thinktank.

Johnson: The PM looked fairly uncomfortable when asked about the very public calls by the father of London Bridge attack victim Jack Merritt for a justice system not based on endless prison sentences. Quizzed about cuts to prisons and probation services, he was obliged to concede this was a “valid question”.

Unanswered questions

Corbyn: This will be no surprise to anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the election campaign, but when pressed by Robinson to say whether, in his neutral Brexit role, he leaned in his beliefs more towards leave or remain, the Labour leader kept everyone in the dark once again.

Johnson: Again, to no real shock anywhere, the PM completely declined to engage properly with a question on what checks will be needed on goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, or the leaked documents discussing this. Johnson even at one point claimed the Democratic Unionist party did not believe there would be checks, which is simply invented.

Verdict

Corbyn: Possibly a score draw for the leaders. With few truly memorable moments, Corbyn will have buoyed supporters with a confident and measured performance, rich in detail, but sceptics might doubt it will be enough to swing the polls. The Labour leader was, to an extent, fighting a different battle to Johnson, trying to look sensible and moderate against someone taking a more openly populist approach.

Johnson: Boring but effective, which will probably please his handlers. People around the UK might have been yelling, “Stop saying ‘Get Brexit done!’” at the TV, but Tory bosses will note that at least they will be repeating a key battle line. But there was very little to appeal to Johnson-sceptics, not least the fact he evaded a series of questions and did little to address issues of trust.