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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shake hands at a TV debate
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/Itv

Johnson, Corbyn face off in UK election debate

November 19, 2019

In their first head-to-head TV debate, Prime Minister Johnson and Labour leader Corbyn sought to win over voters ahead of the December 12 election. The two faced scrutiny over their plans for Brexit and public spending.


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn sparred on Brexit during their first televised debate on Tuesday night.

Despite a shaky start to campaigning, Johnson's Conservatives are currently polling with a comfortable lead over Labour, although both party leaders were looking to convince undecided voters.

Read moreUK election campaign: Who wants what on EU issues?

What they said on Brexit:

  • Johnson vowed to pull the UK out of the European Union by the current deadline of January 31 and said he plans to secure a trade deal with the bloc by the end of 2020.
  • Corbyn said that a Labour-led government would renegotiate a divorce deal with the EU within three months and hold a second referendum on Brexit options, including an option to remain, within six months.
  • When pressed by Johnson on whether or not he would support remaining in the EU or advocate for leaving, Corbyn dodged the question, saying he would implement whatever voters decide after a second Brexit referendum. 
  • Corbyn dubbed Johnson's Brexit timeline "nonsense" while Johnson blamed Labour for "dither and delay, deadlock and division" in carrying out Brexit.

Brexit fears mount in Ireland's tourism industry

NHS 'Not up for sale'

The future of the UK's state-run National Health Service (NHS) was also raised during the debate, with Corbyn vowing to "end privatization" within the system.

Johnson also said that the health care system will not be up for debate in any future negotiations for a US-UK trade deal. 

"It will not be up for sale in any negotiation," the prime minister said. 

During US President Donald Trump's visit to the UK this summer, he told reporters that "everything" including the NHS was on the table in trade negotiations.

'How can we trust you?'

The dire state of political discourse and particularly the rhetoric used by Johnson and Corbyn during debates in Parliament was the focus of one audience question.

"How can we trust you?" an audience member asked. "Under your leadership the debate has become toxic and degraded with an appalling level of lies and abuse."

"Trust is something that has to be earned," responded Corbyn, saying that he would make an effort to listen to more voters.

Johnson agreed that trust in politics has been "corroded" but blamed the breakdown on Labour MPs putting up resistance to the government's Brexit deals in Parliament.

Read more: What do Germans really think of Brits?

The UK and foreign doctors

High-stakes election 

The contentious hour-long debate, which saw both men cut off numerous times for speaking too long, appeared to leave British viewers divided. A snap poll by YouGov taken immediately after the debate saw 51% of respondents saying Johnson had won, while 49% said Corbyn performed better.

Johnson and the Conservatives have been campaigning on a platform to "get Brexit done," and promising to end years of political disagreements and uncertainty over the UK's pending exit from the EU.

Besides campaigning for a second Brexit referendum, the Labour campaign has sought to shift public attention to tackling inequality in the country, ending years spending cuts under Conservative governments and promising to invest heavily in public services.

Following the Corbyn-Johnson showdown, broadcaster ITV also hosted a separate debate for leaders of smaller parties, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats, who were shut out from the earlier debate.

Although Labour is lagging behind the Conservatives in opinion polls, political analysts have suggested that Corbyn could still become prime minister if he forms a coalition with the SNP and Liberal Democrats.

rs/dr  (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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