The Slatest

This Week in Brexit: Boris and Jeremy Face Off

Johnson and Corbyn debate on ITV.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photo by Jonathan Hordle//ITV via Getty Image.

British politics are deeply messed up right now, but, still, Americans could learn from the country’s commitment to electoral brevity. The entire British election is taking place over the course of less than two months, and this week’s big televised debate was just an hour long. Why can’t we have that?

This week in debates: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn met on Tuesday for a much-anticipated televised debate on an ITV set that looked like Tron. Televised debates are a relatively new phenomenon in the U.K.—they’ve only been common for the past decade—and this was the first time there’s been a one-on-one matchup between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition.

After months of watching inconclusive, repetitive debates over the U.S. health care system in the U.S. Democratic primaries, it was disconcerting to see that the British debate was … also in large part about the U.S. health care system. This is because one of Labour’s main lines of attack is that under a post-Brexit trade deal, Johnson’s government would “sell our National Health Service to the United States,” meaning that it would allow U.S. firms to bid on contracts within the state-run system. The prospect of the British system being Americanized is deeply unpopular, and Johnson forcefully denied this, saying “our NHS will never be for sale.”

In general, Johnson stayed laser focused on his pledge to “get Brexit done” and attacked Corbyn for failing to make clear how he would campaign if there were another referendum. Corbyn meanwhile attacked Johnson over the state of the country’s public services. Given the enmity between the two men and how infantile some of their exchanges on the floor of Parliament have been, it was fairly civil.

The main controversy of the debate was on Twitter, where the Conservative Party temporarily rebranded one of its campaign accounts “factcheckUK,” mimicking a nonpartisan fact-checking service. Twitter accused the party of misleading the public with the stunt. In the end, a snap YouGov poll suggested the debate was basically a tie, with 51 percent of voters calling Johnson the winner compared with 49 percent for Corbyn.

This week in manifestos: Corbyn this week unveiled his party’s 2019 manifesto, which he described as “radical.” Titled “It’s Time for Real Change,” the document marks a complete departure from the centrist New Labour era that began with Tony Blair, pledging major increases in spending, social programs, and taxes; ambitious plans to fight climate change; and a general expansion of the role of the state in British public life. What it does not have is much about Brexit. The party pledges to get Brexit “sorted in six months” by ditching Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, and negotiating a new one that includes a much closer future relationship with Europe, including a customs agreement. That agreement will then be put to the public for a new referendum, and the manifesto is vague on whether the party will campaign for Leave or Remain.

The ambiguity is a contrast to the Conservatives, who are campaigning on Johnson’s deal; Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which wants to leave without a deal; and the other small left parties—the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru—who are running on pledges to stop Brexit.

Corbyn’s calculation seems to be that there’s no way to keep everyone in the party happy about Brexit, so he’s downplaying the issue and instead focusing on sweeping progressive pledges that will get the party’s base excited.

This week in polls: Despite Corbyn’s decent debate performance, the party still isn’t in great shape in the polls—at around 29 percent in the BBC’s most recent polling average compared to 40 percent for the Conservatives. (National-level polls can only tell us so much, however, especially given that the smaller parties are engaged in tactical alliances in some of the races.) The Liberal Democrats are in third with about 15 percent and the Brexit Party has slowly declined to 7 percent.

It doesn’t help that Corbyn himself is historically unpopular, thanks to his wishy-washy Brexit stance and his ham-handed handling of accusations of anti-Semitism in the party. But Johnson can’t get too comfortable. If the Conservatives win an outright majority of seats in Parliament, he can probably push his withdrawal agreement through. If they don’t, even if they have the most seats, it’s going to be tough. The other right-wing parties, Farage’s Brexit Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, both oppose the agreement. (The DUP see it as a sellout of Northern Ireland; Farage doesn’t want a deal at all.) The Liberal Democrats have left open the possibility of supporting a minority Conservative government but would demand a second referendum in return. The Lib Dems have ruled out backing Corbyn, though have hinted they could work with Labour if he wasn’t in charge. Meaning, most of the scenarios on the table right now require someone to make a pretty big compromise, and those have been in short supply lately.

Days until election: 21

Days until next Brexit deadline: 71