In their final face-to-face clash ahead of next week’s general election, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn traded blows over Brexit, the NHS, security and racism in an hour-long TV debate – but neither landed a killer punch.
The Labour leader accused the prime minister of using racist language, while Mr Johnson hit back by saying that Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism in his own party was a “failure of leadership”.
But there was no breakthrough for either man, with viewers of BBC1’s election debate handing victory to Johnson as the best performer over Mr Corbyn by a highly symbolic margin of 52 per cent to 48 per cent, according to an instant YouGov poll for Sky News.
Mr Johnson said that, however “well-intentioned” the Labour leader may be on antisemtism, “his unwillingness to take a stand, to stand up for Jewish people in the Labour Party, his unwillingness to protect them, to put an arm round them, is in my view a failure of leadership”.
In a sideswipe at Mr Corbyn’s position on the EU, he said: “You cannot be neutral on questions like this, any more, in my view, than you can try to lead this country and be neutral on the issue of Brexit.”
A clearly angered Mr Corbyn retorted: “A failure of leadership is when you use racist remarks to describe people in different countries or in our society.
“I will never do that and my party will never do that.”
Mr Johnson was forced to confront the criticisms of the father of London Bridge victim Jack Merritt, who said that his son’s death at the hands of released terror convict Usman Khan should not be used to promote hardline law and order policies the prison rehabilitation worker would not have supported.
“I have huge sympathy for Mr Merritt and the … families of both victims and it was an absolutely terrible thing.
“But I still think it’s wrong that someone like Usman Khan who was sentenced to 21 years – or 16 years plus five on licence – should have been out automatically on eight years.”
Mr Corbyn put the blame for the attack squarely on cuts to police, prison and probation services during the years of Tory austerity.
“We need security on our streets,” he said. “Security doesn’t come on the cheap and if you cut the number of police officers… then we all pay a price with our own security.”
On a day when former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major urged people to consider voting against Tory candidates to stop a hard Brexit, Mr Johnson insisted his party was united by his EU withdrawal deal.
And he repeatedly accused Mr Corbyn of being unclear about his position on Brexit, after the Labour leader said he would be “neutral” in any referendum campaign between a deal he had negotiated or remaining in the EU.
“How can you get a deal, a new deal from Brussels for Brexit, if you don’t actually believe in it?,” asked the prime minister. “That’s the mystery that I fail to understand.”
Mr Corbyn took aim at Mr Johnson’s claim to be able to “get Brexit done” quickly, saying the trade deal with the US which the prime minister is seeking would take “seven years of complete uncertainty” to negotiate.
“He knows he can’t get a deal quickly with the USA because of the way in which the US political system works,” said the Labour leader. “And so what he will do is walk out of a relationship with the EU into a relationship with nobody.”
Mr Corbyn once again gave battle over secret papers showing UK and US trade negotiators discussed American ambitions for “full market access” to British services for US corporations and an extension to the patents under which drugs can be sold at higher prices to the NHS.
In the face of Mr Johnson’s protestations that the NHS wouldn’t be on the table in transatlantic trade talks, the Labour leader pointed out that the papers covered six meetings over the course of two years, adding: “It doesn’t take two years to say No to privatisation of the NHS.”
Mr Johnson retorted: “This is pure Bermuda Triangle stuff. We’ve heard it time and time again from the Labour Party during this election campaign. We’ll be hearing about ‘little green men’ next.”
Mr Johnson added: “Under no circumstances will we sell it off to anybody in any kind of trade deal.”
He sought to portray the Labour dossier as “fake news”, saying that anyone making claims about papers which turned out to be untrue should be “made to go on their knees down thorugh the chamber of the House of Commons scourging themselves with their offending documents”.
But in another indication of public doubts about the Tory leader’s trustworthiness, there was a ripple of laughter from the studio audience as he was asked to discuss the problem of fake news.
As the hour-long debate drew to an end, Scottish first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “That was utterly woeful. Two uninspiring men, both of them unsuited to be PM.”
And Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “Tonight’s debate was British politics at its worst. Two leaders offering nothing new, nothing different and neither being honest about the pain Brexit will cause our communities.
“Johnson and Corbyn both proved tonight that they are unfit to lead our country and frankly their own parties.”