When we pass judgements, we may reveal more about ourselves than the subject of our judgement, if for no other reason than that we select certain matters to comment on and don’t deal with others. With that wagging finger of caution in mind, here are five things that struck me about the Corbyn-Johnson debate on the BBC last night.
- Boris Johnson clearly believes the great British public have the thinking capacity of a parrot. Throughout the debate, regardless of the question, he wheeled back to his favourite sound-bite: Get Brexit Done. Johnson seems convinced that you have to keep drumming the slogan into the brains of the listeners, otherwise they’ll forget it. I’m reminded of having to learn off the times tables when we were at school: if we weren’t drilled regularly we’d forget.
- Even before last night’s debate, Corbyn had achieved one victory: he had wrenched the election argument away from a focus solely on Brexit and swung it to public services, particularly the NHS. During the debate he cited facts and figures supporting his claim that the Tories have run down the British health service by starving it of funds.
- Johnson was keen to avoid discussion of his trade talks with the US and particularly leaked documents which appeared to show that the Tories had been in discussion with the Americans for quite a long time. Corbyn waved several pages on this matter but the camera didn’t get close enough for the viewer to see what they said.
- Johnson took every opportunity to highlight Corbyn’s claim that he would be neutral in any future referendum on Brexit. Corbyn’s argument was that he wished to bring divided Britain together again and that indicating a preference for Remain or Leave would destroy his credibility as a healing figure.
- The debate showed yet again, for any dunderhead not yet convinced, that appearance on TV is important for politicians. While Corbyn has become a much neater dresser – navy-blue suit, white shirt, red tie – and Johnson’s scruffiness is almost his signature tune, the fact is that Johnson had a burly, air-punching presence while Corbyn was by comparison a grizzled, thin figure. Johnson exuded good humour, Corbyn stern concern. Johnson’s jokes weren’t too terrific – particularly the one about how lying politicians should be treated (made to crawl the length of the Commons debating chamber while being struck with rolled-up copies of their lies) but the audience laughed anyway.
Verdict: In appearance and presence, Johnson was the winner. He got laughs by references to the Bermuda Triangle and little green men, as well as his cheerful suggestions about how to treat lying politicians. The fact that he could raise a laugh by his surreal picture of how to punish lying politicians said much about his winning personality. The crowd outside the debating studio might have chanted “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” to salute a strong performance from the Labour leader, the sad fact is that Johnson comes across as a man who has a zest for life and a way with words, in contrast to Corbyn’s more serious persona.
It’s a shocking fact but true: if their appearance and temperament are attractive, politicians can say almost any damned thing, down to and including laughing at lies.