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In this bleak mid-winter election, Jeremy Corbyn supporters haven’t had many polls to warm their cockles lately. But the post-ITV Debate YouGov survey putting their man neck and neck with Boris Johnson (49% to 51%) would have come as a welcome fillip.
The Tory spin beforehand was that expectations were so low about Corbyn that he only had to turn up, not trip over his own shoelaces and it would be a success of some kind.
That was always a dubious claim (why have the debate at all if you really believed it would make Corbyn look good?) and the Labour leader’s performance in Manchester proves just why it’s foolish to underestimate him - and his party.
Corbyn is vastly improved at this game since he first emerged blinking into the frontbench spotlight in 2015. His long experience at PMQs (Johnson has done just four), his media Q&As and his previous outings in the 2017 election debates were all evident on Tuesday night.
His answer on the NHS was heartfelt, citing the case of his late friend who died complaining of hospital delays, and his reply on the Epstein question was pitch perfect as he said the victims were the ones who should be listened to.
His lightness of touch on the monarchy - “needs improvement” - also showed a dry sense of humour his critics fail to spot. When Johnson tried a remix of Cameron’s 2015 tune about a SNP-Labour coalition of chaos, Corbyn had the neat zinger that the country had “nine years of chaotic coalition already”.
In a way, Corbyn’s biggest weapon was the audience, or rather their mockery of Johnson. That moment of laughter, after he’d said truth matters in this election, was painful for the PM precisely because it resurrected the dissembling and downright deceit he’s been accused of over his whole career. The detailed YouGov stats showed that on “trustworthiness” Johnson scored 40% and Corbyn 45%.
That’s why it seemed spectacularly ill-judged of the Tory press office to change their Twitter handle to ‘factcheckuk’ during the debate (awarding him the winner to boot). Yes, it seemed a classic Vote Leave tactic, creating a noise to just get people talking (on TV not on Twitter) about the PM ‘winning’. But it just served to underline his slipperiness. Former Tory MP Anne Milton said today Corbyn was more “sincere” than Johnson.
Still, Johnson undeniably had the best of the first half of the debate, when it was focused on Brexit. His whole game plan was to highlight Corbyn’s refusal to say if he was Leave or Remain, and on those terms it worked.
He sounded faintly ridiculous when he told the flat out porkie that “our inability to fund the NHS is because of our failure to get Brexit done” (Corbyn really should have hammered that and didn’t). His attempt to even suggest that not doing Brexit was holding back climate change policy was similarly risible but went unchallenged.
This debate, like this whole election, was a gamble for Johnson. It paid off tonight in the sense that he rammed home his main attacks - Corbyn’s weakness on Brexit and Scottish independence - in the first half (maybe some people changed channels at the break?) and emerged the narrow winner.
In making Corbyn look shifty on the issue, Johnson may have done enough to persuade those Labour Leave voters (who may never vote Tory) in the north and midlands just to stay at home. And with so many micro-marginals at stake, that differential turnout could make all the difference.
For his part, Corbyn didn’t need a knockout blow (in politics as in pugilism they rarely happen in big fights), and he won several rounds of this political boxing match on points. He now needs to get those points translated into a steady rise in his party’s support.
In some ways, his main asset was the sheer fact that there were only two contenders in the ring. It reminded even the most casual voter that this is the most important election in years and that there is a forced choice between Johnson and Corbyn in most marginal seats where the result will be decided.
The difficulty is if lots of voters simply agree with the TV audience questioners tonight that both men are just too toxic to be trusted: that could harm Labour more than the Tories, given their greater need to win seats.
Overall, given Corbyn is still way behind his rival on ratings as potential prime minister, even getting a close draw was a kind of victory. As one Labour source put it to me, millions saw Corbyn “unfiltered” for the first time in this campaign. “It’s game on,” they said.
The hard slog however has only just begun, and time is running out. This damp squib of an election has still yet to set alight the public imagination.
Quote Of The Day
“How can we trust you? Under your leadership the debate has become toxic and degraded with an appalling level of lies and childish abuse.”
– Fahad Said gives Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn a piece of his mind
Tuesday’s Election Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson pledged to give the police “greater freedoms” to use stop and search on those known to have carried knives in the past.
John McDonnell unveiled Labour’s plans to overhaul corporate governance in the UK, confirming plans to cap chief executives’ salaries at 20 times that of their lowest paid workers.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said Corbyn should not be in a hurry to resign if Labour loses the election. He told the New Statesman that a ‘period of reflection’ would be needed and said it was wrong of Ed Miliband to quit the day after he lost in 2015.
Scottish secretary Alistair Jack suggested that a Tory government could grant a second independence referendum – but only if the SNP got “the democratic mandate” through a majority in the 2021 Holyrood elections. Quite a contrast to the PM saying only this week “I’m ruling it out”.
Labour will include in its manifesto a pledge to protect and strengthen women’s reproductive rights, HuffPost revealed. A review of abortion law is expected from a Corbyn government.
The Twitter account of Arron Banks, the founder of the pro-Brexit campaign Leave.EU, was hacked, laying bare thousands of private messages over several years.
The Green party launched its manifesto with a key pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2030 by investing £100bn a year in policies to tackle climate change. It would also increase NHS funding, hold a Brexit referendum and extend voting to 16-year-olds.
What I’m Reading
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.