The first leaders TV debate. Why a draw was always going to be a win for Johnson. And how a draw is what he got.

Our framework for this evening’s ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn was as follows – based on the assumption that, to date, the Conservatives are best placed to date in this election campaign.

“First, [Corbyn] must be seen to win it. Second, any such victory must cut through to voters, and start to turn the tables. Third, it must not be eclipsed by a Johnson victory in further debates, or by anything else that happens during the run-up to polling day.”

So how did the Labour leader get on?

Perhaps the best place to find an answer lies in the format of the debate rather than its content.  It set out familiar television political debating ground.  Neither man was able to develop an argument.  Audience participation was limited and controlled – so neither man faced a “gotcha moment”, a particular potential problem for the Prime Minister.

The subjects were: Brexit, the Union, trust, the NHS and social care, the economy, and climate change.  Our take is that Brexit and the Union were particularly tricky for Corbyn; trust especially thorny for Johnson.  The audience laughed out loud at both men: Johnson on trust-related issues, Corbyn on practicalities – such as his plan for a four day week.

You will sense from looking at this outline what happened to the content.  The Prime Minister was remorselessly, relentlessly on message, hammering away at Corbyn’s fence-sitting over a second referendum.  The Opposition Leader was less settled, had some nice swipes – “nine years of chaotic coaliton already under the Tories” – but also felt more pressure.

In football terms, Johnson played a high press and Corbyn relied on counter-attack.  Neither scored.

Which takes us back to our start. The Labour Leader didn’t win the debate. So he had no victory with which to cut through to voters.  And so the Prime Minister doesn’t have any ground to make up in the further TV debates – or elsewhere.

That suits him fine.

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Author: Paul Goodman

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