British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday traded blows over Brexit and the health system as they vied for votes during their first head-to-head television debate.
The prime-time event, held in Manchester and broadcast on ITV, presented an opportunity for a potentially game-changing moment in an election campaign so far characterized as lackluster.
Yet neither candidate appeared to land a knockout blow in the first of several planned televised debates, some also involving other smaller parties’ leaders, ahead of the Dec. 12 poll.
Frontrunner Johnson, who took over as the leader of the ruling Conservatives in July, relentlessly tried to keep the focus on his plan to finally take the country out of the EU, reiterating his campaign mantra to “get Brexit done.”
“We certainly will come out on January the 31st as we have a deal that is oven-ready,” he said, also vowing to complete a future trading relationship with the bloc by 2021.
In the testiest clashes of the hour-long debate, Corbyn said his rival’s timetable was unrealistic and that Johnson was poised to sell out Britain’s cherished National Health Service (NHS) in a trade deal with the US.
The veteran socialist accused Johnson of holding “a series of secret meetings with the United States in which they were proposing to open up our NHS markets ... to American companies.”
“You’re going to sell our national health service out to the United States and big pharma,” Corbyn said, waving redacted documents he said were accessed under freedom of information laws that detail preliminary UK-US negotiations.
Johnson responded that the accusations were “an absolute invention.”
“The single biggest threat to our economy and our ability to fund the NHS is our failure to get Brexit done,” he said.
The debate was the first time voters had seen only the leaders of Britain’s two main parties, which between them have held power since 1922, face off on TV.
Other smaller parties were excluded this time — a format they unsuccessfully challenged in court.
Johnson has held a double-digit lead over Labour in opinion polls for weeks, making it his contest to lose.
Corbyn is seeking to repeat the success of the last election in 2017, when he came from a similar position to deny the Tories an outright win with promises to end austerity and deliver change “for the many, not the few.”
The two leaders answered questions submitted by viewers in front of a live audience, with topics ranging from trust in politicians to the future of Scotland, as well as the British monarchy, but the discussion repeatedly returned to Brexit — the defining issue that has paralysed British politics since the 2016 referendum.
Corbyn vowed to renegotiate Johnson’s deal and hold another referendum, appealing to around half of Britons who still oppose the result of the 2016 Brexit vote.
However, the Labour leader has yet to say how he would campaign in that referendum — drawing ridicule from Johnson.
“Are you going to campaign for ‘leave’ or ‘remain?’” the Conservative leader asked Corbyn, who refused to commit.
The Labour leader meanwhile sought to shift attention to inequality and the effects of a decade of Conservative spending cuts, with his party promising a swathe of nationalizations and huge investment in public services.
“I believe in investing massively in our public services,” he said. “I think this election is a turning point in the way we’re going to manage our economy.”
Johnson countered with warnings that Labour would cripple the economy, although he has also promised more money for hospitals, schools and police, as well as infrastructure including broadband.
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