(CN) — Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn shared a debate stage Tuesday night and shared two very different visions of the future of the United Kingdom — and both got laughed at by a punchy crowd.
Conservative Prime Minister Johnson and Labour Party leader Corbyn squared off in an hour-long televised debate in the run-up to what is being billed as one of the most important elections in British history.
By the end of the debate, the different strategies Britain's two largest parties are adopting to win a Dec. 12 election became clear.
For Johnson, it’s all about “getting Brexit done” and making voters see a Labour-led government as ruining the economy, stopping Brexit from happening and breaking up the United Kingdom by allowing a referendum on Scottish independence.
For Corbyn, the election is all about making voters see Johnson as ready to privatize Britain’s prized but struggling National Health Service in a trade deal with the United States, and pledging to fight inequality, fund long-suffering public services and make the super-rich pay more in taxes.
All the while, Corbyn studiously is avoiding to talk about whether he would like to see the U.K. leave the European Union or not. In the debate, he said a Labour victory would lead to a second Brexit referendum.
There was no clear winner in the debate. With his boisterous personality and showmanship, Johnson, 55, is an experienced debater going all the way back to his days at Oxford University. He appeared more at ease as he jabbed at Corbyn and got in a few of his trademark jokes.
But he evoked ridicule and laughter from the audience when the subject of trust came up and he said it’s important to be able to trust a politician. Johnson has a long history of marital infidelity, lying and political skullduggery.
Corbyn, 70, performed well even though he failed to deliver what commentators said was a needed knockout punch because Labour is trailing in polls and surveys show that voters like Corbyn even less than they do Johnson.
Still, in his acerbic and sharp-tongued way, Corbyn cut Johnson down on several occasions and sowed seeds of doubt about Johnson and his character.
For Johnson and his Tories, it seems they believe this election will be won by incessantly talking about the need to push the U.K. out of the EU by the end of January and “get Brexit done,” as the party slogan says.
During the debate, Johnson repeatedly said the cure to Britain's problems — be it the economy, fighting climate change or improving the National Health Service — rested on “getting Brexit done.”
In reality, many economists say Brexit will seriously damage the U.K.'s economy.
“People want to get Brexit done and to unleash the potential of this entire country,” Johnson said in his opening statement.
In Parliament only Johnson's Tories — who are becoming increasingly hardcore about Brexit under Johnson’s leadership — favor leaving the EU under the terms of a deal he struck with the EU. The Brexit referendum in 2016 was a Tory initiative, instigated in large part because the party felt under threat from a nationalist movement run by Nigel Farage, whose loathing of the EU has won the support of the far right.
Johnson sought to undermine Corbyn by relentlessly asking the Labour leader to say what position he would take if Labour got its way and a second Brexit referendum is held. Corbyn refused to say whether he would campaign in a second referendum for remaining in the EU or leaving under the terms of a Labour-sponsored deal. On this front, Corbyn faces a difficulty, because there are many Labour-held districts where a majority of people favor Brexit.
Corbyn too elicited ridicule and laughter from the audience when he said he had been “very clear” about his position on Brexit.
Corbyn stuck to his attack lines. He returned several times to the question of Britain's public health service and charged that Johnson was ready to sell it off to the “United States and big pharma.” At one point, Corbyn held up a heavily redacted document obtained through a freedom of information request about negotiations the U.K. and the United States have held in trade talks concerning health care.
“You're going to sell our National Health Service to the United States and big pharma,” Corbyn charged.
Johnson denied it. “This is an absolute invention,” he said. “Our NHS will never be for sale.”
Labour is trailing in the polls, though there are signs it may be making gains on the Tories. Johnson is seeking to obtain a majority in Parliament to enable him to push through his Brexit strategy. Prior to Parliament's dissolution, Johnson did not have a majority in the House of Commons after he alienated members of his own party and his allies in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party with his Brexit plans.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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