Friday night’s election debate has once again exposed how divided the British nation is. The Sky poll conducted by YouGov shows 52-48 difference between the two main contenders vying for No 10 Downing Street—incumbent Boris Johnson and challenger Jeremy Corbyn. It is the same margin that set the course of the messiest divorce from the European Union, the Brexit referendum. The winner in the debate, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, stuck to his campaign theme, “Get Brexit Done”. His rival, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of taking a neutral position and giving people another chance to decide between a new deal or remaining in the EU seems to represent the opponents of Brexit.
PM Johnson, amidst huge criticism for trying to evade media scrutiny, fared well in the debate by sticking to his well-rehearsed strategy with a portrayal of lingering chaos and uncertainty if his opponent gets into Downing Street. His emphasis was on three areas : there is an agreed deal which in his words is “oven-ready”, all 630 candidates of his party have signed up to his deal and the whole Brexit process will be over by the end of 2020 which will then allow him to focus on other pressing domestic agenda.
Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand tried to prove that the “oven-ready Brexit deal” was not at all what it claimed and in fact would result in a no-deal divorce. He brought up a leaked document of the EU deal that Johnson had signed up to, which showed that goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom would require customs check and documentation. It implies an assumed border on the Irish Sea. Mr Johnson denied any such requirement of customs procedure, but did not dispute the authenticity of the leaked document. Rather he went on attacking Corbyn, asking since when did he start caring about the union of the Kingdom as he had sympathised with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). This tactic perhaps exposes a real possibility now of Northern Ireland’s isolation from the United Kingdom and pushing it to reunite with the Irish Republic.
In the last parliament, the Conservatives had to rely on the Unionist MPs of Northern Ireland who have already expressed their inability to do the same again if the Brexit deal contains provisions of customs procedure or treats them differently from the rest of the UK. It explains why Johnson has been pleading the people to give him a majority which every other opponent and some of his former associates want to deny him. In an unprecedented move a few hours before the final debate, a former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, came out and urged the nation to deny a majority to Johnson and vote tactically. He has called for electing those few rebel Conservatives who were kicked out from the Johnson’s party.
Johnson’s team, however, would be pleased that he did not have any slip-ups or blunders which happened so many times over his pledges on building hospitals, recruiting new nurses and police officers, funding more schools and ending austerity. Those blunders reduced his trustworthiness in the eyes of the people. Despite emerging marginally ahead in the last debate, the same Sky/YouGov poll found Corbyn is trusted by more than 55 percent of the people, compared to Johnson’s 29 percent.
Many analysts suggested that the BBC debate, the last of the two leaders’ face-to-face interaction, was the last chance for Corbyn to recover the lost ground in opinion polls, in which he has been trailing since the beginning of the campaign—sometimes by 12 points and more recently by 7 points on average. Though Corbyn performed much better than the first debate on ITV, there was nothing too spectacular. His focus largely was on ending austerity and making this election more than Brexit. On Brexit, his strategy was to emphasise the need to bring the country back together from the division created by the Brexit debate—by maintaining his neutrality and giving people the final say.
Going by the opinion poll, it seems his message on ending austerity, bringing public services under the government’s control and protecting the National Health Service created by his party, has succeeded in bringing back those wavering Labour voters who have been torn apart on the question of indecisiveness on Brexit and pains accrued from a decade-long austerity programme imposed by the Conservatives.
In this election, Corbyn has been attacked from all sides. The right-wing forces and the press portray him as a danger to the economy and security. In Labour’s heartland, those who supported Brexit criticise him for not taking a firm position on supporting and implementing the divorce deal. The Brexit Party, led by the most ardent Brexiteer Nigel Farage, has targeted Labour singularly as the main detractor of the Brexit project. He has withdrawn all his party nominees where Conservatives have the advantage, but has kept his candidates in all those seats where it can harm Labour. On the other hand, those who want to remain in the EU, popularly known as the Remainers, are divided in two camps—those who want to revoke Brexit altogether and those who prefer a second referendum. Corbyn’s neutrality to some extent does not satisfy many of those Remainers and the ardent ones among them are the Liberal Democrats.
The Brexit Party’s support to the Conservative Party somehow facilitated by president Trump has consolidated Johnson’s position and there is not much room for him to improve. But Corbyn still has some time to win over the Remainers. His advantage is that denying majority to Johnson might open up 10 Downing Street’s door for him, and the Scottish National Party and the Greens are ready to help.
Kamal Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in London.