‘Just when we thought we’d hit rock-bottom, someone knocked from down below’
– Russian proverb
The biggest loser of last night’s debate? The Oxford Union. Over hundreds of years, this world-famous debating society has produced some twenty-eight UK Prime Ministers. Their latest gift to Britain, Boris Johnson, is hardly a ringing endorsement for the club, rather a depressing showcase of how far sheer bluster and class privilege can propel a mediocre fool.
Conversely, following three general election defeats, it is mystifying that the best alternative which the Labour Party can apparently provide is Jeremy Corbyn, the winner of every unpopularity contest since the invention of opinion polls. Whoever is most capable of leading Britain into the future, it is surely neither of these men. If there is any consolation to be had, it’s that, whoever wins on December 12th, we’ll likely see the back of one of them.
Moreover, the two party leaders faced off in front of a TV audience which was, it must be said, a rather poor endorsement of the Great British public. What purpose did they serve, except for interrupting an event already pressed for time? Meanwhile, the Conservative Party press office briefly rebranded their Twitter account to masquerade as a fact-checking site. Two weeks after it was caught doctoring news footage.
FACT: The United Kingdom is masquerading as a functioning democracy.
Perhaps if we can agree on something it is that the format was abysmal. The debate ran for an hour, including a commercial break, far too short for any meaningful discussion to take place. Crucial time was wasted on a pointless ‘quickfire’ round, asking the candidates what they would get each other for Christmas and a meaningless ‘civility pledge’. Who cares?
Speaking of the quickfire round, this was the only time when the presenter cared to bring up climate change. She asked, without any hint of irony, whether it represented the biggest issue of the day. ITV should be seriously ashamed.
Meanwhile, ‘is the monarchy fit for purpose?’ Corbyn suggested it could use improvement. Johnson, a man who infamously recently lied to the Queen, insisted it’s beyond reproach. The next question, incidentally, concerned a senior member of the Royal Family refusing to express remorse after repeatedly hanging out with a convicted child sex offender.
The main body of the debate could be summed up as follows; Boris Johnson wants to talk to you about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn would really rather not.
The European question took up the entire first half of the event, with Johnson repeatedly challenging the Labour leader on whether he would campaign for or against a deal in the event of a confirmatory referendum. Safe to say, the latter couldn’t answer.
Instead, Corbyn’s favoured retort was that merely passing the Withdrawal Agreement by January 31st won’t ‘Get Brexit Done’ in any meaningful sense and would only be the start of years upon years of trade negotiations. Furthermore, as expected, the role of the NHS in any future trade agreement with the United States was a contentious topic.
Brexit was always going to be a difficult issue for the Labour leader and Boris Johnson did his best to pivot back to it at every opportunity. ‘Why should people trust you?’ Get Brexit done. ‘What about truth in politics?’ Brexit. ‘Here are some disparaging things your former aide said about you.’ Well, antisemitism in Labour is out of control, also Brexit. ‘What would you get Jeremy for Christmas?’ A copy of my Brexit deal, of course. The audience was ultimately sick of it, but message discipline is king.
A significant moment came when the party leaders were asked if austerity in Britain should come to an end. Both agreed, and both parties are heading into this election pledging massive boosts to public spending. When asked about corporation tax, Johnson similarly explained that it will not drop any further under his premiership. Of course, the Conservative position was always that lowering corporation tax increased overall tax revenue. Oh well.
As the debate concluded, many politicos responded by saying it was a waste of time. But we don’t know that. Here’s the thing – if you already happen to follow politics on a regular basis, then these events are not for you. They are for the overwhelming majority of people who are not like you, including a significant part of the electorate who still are undecided. Just because someone who practically lives on Twitter did not learn anything, that doesn’t mean no one did. Over 6 million people tuned in – so let’s wait and see.
Purely in terms of performance, this debate was probably a draw. However, given Corbyn trails Johnson in approval ratings by a larger margin than any opposition leader has trailed a Prime Minister in all of recorded history, I’d say the Labour leader had a decent night. All he had to do to succeed was not show up wearing an IRA balaclava and refrain from accidentally punching an audience member. Safe to say, he did neither of those things.