The ITV election leader’s debate which took place last month was like a frantic lower league football match. I tweeted at its end: “terrible pitch, kick and rush, noisy crowd (but no pitch invasions), competent ref, high press from Boris Johnson, no goal on the break for Jeremy Corbyn – no score draw.”
This evening’s BBC equivalent was more like a Premiership encounter in which both teams have the space they need to play as they wish. They were assisted by a referee, Nick Robinson, who didn’t halt the flow of the game by blowing his whistle too frequently. That may be why the crowd – i.e: the studio audience, in this comparison – clapped little and mocked less. They showed every sign of being absorbed by the match.
Given more space than at the ITV encounter, Corbyn made a simple case based on change. If you believe in Labour’s magic money tree – we apologise for reviving the phrase – you will have found him convincing. But his argument was essentially abstracted, with little three-dimensional sense of the last deadlocked Parliament; the institutional gridlock of the last of the last few years; the possibility of it continuing.
You may not have agreed with Johnson’s argument, but it had more body to it. Like Corbyn, he made a case for change; unlike him, he provided a context – painting a picture of that paralysed Parliament, and of how that paralysis can begin to be healed: by, in a phrase that the Conservatives have filched from focus focus, “getting Brexit done”.
Furthermore, the space that both men were given allowed Johnson to do something almost unseen in this election to date: namely, to make an argument more broadly. Capitalism depends on profits. Unlike losses, these can be taxed. Those taxes pay for public services. That is One Nation conservatism. One can disagree with this line of thought, but Johnson was allowed to make it, and give more of a rounded sense of what he thinks and believes.
Which is why we conclude that he clearly won the debate on points – or by one goal to none, to stick to our comparison. Robinson asked Corbyn some sharp questions on Brexit and Labour NHS scare stories; at least one of the audience questions came “from the right”, in the form of a sceptical probing of both the main parties’ spending plans. And Johnson visibly relaxed, mocking Corbyn’s “Bermuda Triangle” tales of Tory NHS plots.
He got into detail, too, making a decent fist of explaining the six new hospitals / 40 new hospitals controversy. Only when the questioning turned to politicians’ “lies” did he look flustered. Otherwise, his weakest point, public trust in him, was scarcely probed.
Some will disagree with us calling the debate for Johnson. So be it. But they will find it hard to assert convincingly that it should be called for Corbyn instead. And remember: as in the ITV debate, it’s the Labour leader who needed a win more this evening, at least if the polls are on song.