Richard North, 20/11/2019  

So, the first of the great non-debates is over. The first half was dedicated (sort of) to Brexit and told us nothing we didn't know already. But, under the frenetic moderation of Julie Etchingham, the format merely allowed Corbyn and Johnson to state their positions. There was nothing in depth that would allow us to get to the bottom of the issues.

Following the break, we moved on to the NHS – yawnsville. Once again we heard much that we've heard before, but learnt nothing new. Punctuated by intrusive clapping, the formulaic nature of the engineered confrontation simply failed to deliver.

A fascinating fifty minutes of debate, said Etchingham, before allowing the leaders to sum up. I must have missed something. I certainly didn't recognise The Sun headline which talked of a "bruising TV debate". All I saw in this was an hour of my life lost, never to be regained.

Michael Deacon of the Telegraph seems to agree. "This debate between Johnson and Corbyn never got going – because Julie Etchingham wouldn't let it", his headline reads.

The most memorable answers were for the most inane question, he writes. Right at the end, a young man in the audience asked Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn what present they would give each other for Christmas. Corbyn said he would give the prime minister a copy of A Christmas Carol by Dickens: "So you can see how nasty Scrooge was". Johnson said that he would give Mr Corbyn "a good read" too: "a copy of my brilliant Brexit deal".

"If that seems vapid and inane", Deacon added, "it was at least in keeping with the rest of the broadcast – because, although it was meant to be the first big debate of this election campaign, it didn’t really feel like a debate at all. It simply never got going".

And for once, the Telegraph and the Guardian were of a single mind. John Crace dismissed the whole debate with the headline: "Bluster from smirking Johnson; fudge from freshly trimmed Corbyn", telling us: "Tory and Labour leaders manage an insincere handshake in an S&M dungeon – but little else".

"All pretence that the debate was a serious contribution to the election campaign had been abandoned when the lights went up on a set that looked like a cross between a 1970s afternoon gameshow and an S&M dungeon", he added.

I suppose it was inevitable that this should have been the case. Even without Etchingham's leaden moderation, both leaders had far too much to lose so neither was going to take any risks. And then the policy set by ITV of embracing a wide range of issues meant the debate was never going to run deep. Crace actually had it, writing: "the whole purpose of the format is to be as uninformative as possible, with both party leaders sticking to set lines".

What the media make of it generally depends on their political stance. Predictably, the Telegraph took a pro-Johnson stance, reporting that Corbyn had been "jeered over Labour's Brexit confusion".

The Mail took a similar line, proclaiming: "Boris Johnson wins leaders' debate... just: Voters back PM by 51% to 49% after Brexit-shy Jeremy Corbyn was jeered for refusing to say NINE times in bruising ITV face-off if he backs Leave or Remain".

Here, we see the same obsession that gripped Andrew Marr on Sunday, the Westminster bubble preoccupation with what Corbyn actually believes. The Independent, on the other hand, had Johnson "challenged" over selling off the NHS, with the Guardian offering similar fare, telling us that: "Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clash in ITV election debate over 'NHS for sale' claim".

The Mirror got more personal, reporting that the audience had burst out laughing when Johnson, in response to Etchingham's questioning, claimed that "truth matters" in politics. "The Tory leader who's been sacked twice for lying didn't quite get this one past the audience or ITV host Julie Etchingham", the paper added.

Nevertheless, that was probably the high point, with the nearest thing to a gaffe coming from Johnson when he responded to a question on the royal family, declaring that it was "beyond reproach". Corbyn went for the more cautious, "needs improvement".

Predictably, for such a lacklustre affair, the YouGov snap poll puts the result close to a draw: 51 percent to Johnson and 49 percent to Corbyn. In opinion poll terms, the statistical error does allow for a draw. But even if Johnson did narrowly squeak ahead, it was a margin that can hardly give him any comfort. Oddly, the Financial Times headlined, "Johnson survives hazardous duel with Corbyn".

As to the detail of the YouGov poll, 58 percent of viewers came away feeling frustrated. But some 40 percent thought that Johnson came across as more trustworthy, putting Corbyn in the lead with 45 percent.

When it came to being "in touch with ordinary people", Corbyn was streets ahead with 59 percent, leaving Johnson on 25 percent. Johnson made up ground, though, on who came across as more prime ministerial. He made 54 percent as opposed to Corbyn who only scored 29 percent. And that could be the impression that matters.

Speaking for YouGov, Chris Curtis, the organisation's political research manager, remarked that their poll showed that the public was "divided on who won the debate". As with the media split, respondents took a partisan view. Most Labour voters thought Jeremy Corbyn had won while Conservative voters thought Boris Johnson was the winner. Very few people changed their minds.

However, said Curtis, "given the Conservatives went into this debate in the lead, they will hope the lack of a knockout blow means they can maintain this until voting day".

Certainly, the polls would tend to support that hope, although with the most recent YouGov Westminster voting intention, only just. It has the Tories losing three points since 15 November, dropping to 42 percent. With Labour gaining two points, creeping up to 30 percent, the gap closes to 12 percent.

By complete contrast, KantarTNS – carrying out its polling over 14-18 November - has the Tories grabbing eight points to rise to 45 percent, with Labour level-pegging on 27 percent. That gives the Tories a virtually unassailable 18-point lead.

In both polls, the Lib-Dem vote share is virtually static, at 15-16 percent, but KantarTNS has Farage's limited company plummeting seven points to end up with a miserable two percent, with YouGov recording a static four percent. Either way, it seems that the party is over for Farage.

Following a break for "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here", ITV actually gave Farage and the others an hour of airtime with a series of one-to-one interviews. But it looks as if ITV got it right (with the support of the High Court), focusing on the two main players. Despite the earlier indications that we were looking at a multi-party contest, this is shaping up to be an old-fashioned Lab-Con slugging match.

Mind you, the Guardian is pushing the boat out with Suzanne Moore writing under the headline, "Why vote? You’re just clinging to a wrecked system". Her sub-heading reads: "The looming general election offers fake binary choices – Corbyn or Johnson, leave or remain. Taking part is to bolster brokenness".

"Voting", she says, "now feels like clinging to the wreckage of a system we should dismantle. All the issues that really matter require cooperation, not silly, point-scoring conflict. That’s what this election feels like: a proxy war in which we are unwilling conscripts with little actual choice".

There was something of that in yesterday's "great debate". Not a few pundits remarked that there was definitely an anti-politics mood abroad. That is one to watch in this election. Given also poor weather and the dark nights, we could be looking at reduced turnout casting an unpredictable shadow over the whole election.

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