LONDON - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn clashed over Brexit in the first televised debate Tuesday, ahead of the December 12 election. Both men faced laughter and heckling from the audience, and polls show much of the voting public appeared unimpressed by the debate.
Recent polls give Johnson’s Conservatives a lead of between 8 and 12 percentage points over Labour, which still may not be enough to give the prime minister a parliamentary majority.
Boris Johnson's campaign promise
During the debate, Johnson promised to end what he called the ‘national misery’ of Brexit, and said a Conservative government would leave the European Union in January – adding that reaching a trade deal with the EU would be easy.
“We have ample time to do a fantastic free trade deal with our friends and partners in the EU because we're already in a state of perfect alignment, both for tariffs and for quotas,” Johnson told the audience in Salford, Manchester.
He said a win for his Labour opponents would see more Brexit confusion.
“We don't know on which side Mr. Corbyn would campaign. Is he going to campaign for leave or remain?”
Jeremy Corbyn's policy
Corbyn insisted his policy is clear: to negotiate a better Brexit deal. “Three months to negotiate, six months for a referendum, and that will bring that process to an end,” the Labour leader said.
He accused Johnson of planning to sell out Britain’s National Health Service, the NHS. “What we know of the government's proposals, what we know of what Mr. Johnson has done, is a series of secret meetings with the United States in which they were proposing to open up our NHS markets, as they call them, to American companies,” he said.
Johnson insists Britain’s National Health Service won’t be on the table in any U.S. trade deal.
Views on climate and environment
Both men agreed climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the country.
“I think it's a colossal issue for the entire world, and the UK is meeting that challenge with the most far-reaching ambition to get to carbon neutral by 2050. And I know you don't want me to say this, but we need to get Brexit done in order to deliver on those priorities,” Johnson told the audience.
His Labour opponent pledged to go further on environmental issues.
“This is the most massive issue facing the whole world,” Corbyn said. “When the poorest people in the poorest countries lose out because of flooding and unusual weather patterns, when we have unusual weather patterns in this country, when we have extreme levels of air pollution, we have to have a green industrial revolution where we invest for the future in sustainable industries and jobs and prevent the continuing damage to our natural world and our environment.”
Voters appear unimpressed
After the debate, polls showed the public was evenly divided over who emerged victorious – and many were unimpressed. “I didn't think anyone won, I didn't think it was very meaningful, or kind of, revealing debate at all,” said Emily, a voter from Kent in southeast England. “It was pretty underwhelming all-round really,” said London resident James Davies.
There was anger among other opposition parties over their exclusion from the debate. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party launched a failed court case against the host broadcaster ITV to try to force them to include smaller parties.
Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats criticized the debate format Wednesday. “I think people at home will be forgiven for thinking, surely we deserve better than this. There was a huge gap in that debate. Both of them want Brexit and yet the voice of remain wasn't there," he said.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon leader renewed her party’s pitch for independence. “It really underlines the importance for Scotland of getting our future out of the hands of Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, a broken Westminster system and taking our future into our own hands,” Sturgeon said Wednesday.
Both leaders pledged big increases in spending on health, education, and tackling climate change. But in reality, Brexit will still likely dominate the next parliament, says analyst Ian Bond of the Center for European Reform.
“If we leave the EU on 31st January, then we will have several more years of uncertainty while we negotiate the future trade deal with the EU.”
Whoever becomes Britain’s next Prime Minister, their time in office will likely still be defined by Brexit.