Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn prepared to square off Tuesday in the first live televised debate of Britain’s election, each trying to spark a lackluster campaign to life.
The hour-long encounter — the first-ever head-to-head TV debate between a British prime minister and their chief challenger — offers Corbyn a chance to make up ground in opinion polls, which show his Labour Party trailing Johnson’s Conservatives ahead of the Dec. 12 election.
For Johnson, it’s a chance to shake off a wobbly start that has seen the Conservatives thrown onto the defensive by candidates’ gaffes and favoritism allegations about Johnson’s past relationship with an American businesswoman.
Johnson limbered up Tuesday by donning boxing gloves emblazoned with his campaign slogan “Get Brexit done” during a visit to a gym in northwest England.
The debate will feature only two candidates after the High Court in London rejected a legal challenge from two smaller anti-Brexit parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, over ITV’s decision to exclude their leaders from the debate. The court decided it was a matter of “editorial judgment” to limit the format to the leaders of Britain’s two largest political parties.
Televised debates are a relatively new phenomenon in British elections — the first took place in 2010 — and they have the power to transform campaigns. A confident 2010 appearance by former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg sparked a wave of “Cleggmania” that helped propel him into the post of deputy prime minister in a coalition government with the Conservatives.
During Britain’s last election in 2017, then-Prime Minister Theresa May refused to take part in a TV debate. The decision reinforced the view that she was a weak campaigner and the election turned out to be a debacle for the Conservative Party, which lost its majority in Parliament.
Britain’s stalled departure from the European Union is the overriding issue in the Dec. 12 vote. Johnson pushed to hold the election more than two years ahead of schedule in an effort to win a majority in the House of Commons to pass his Brexit divorce deal with the European Union.
More than three years after the U.K. voted to leave the 28-nation bloc, the terms of the country’s departure and its future relationship with the EU remain unclear. Britain is now scheduled to leave the EU on Jan. 31 after the EU granted a three-month delay amid gridlock in Parliament over Johnson’s Brexit deal.
The left-of-center Labour Party, meanwhile, says it will hold a new referendum on whether to remain in the EU or leave the bloc. Smaller parties in the race include the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who want to cancel Brexit; the Scottish National Party, which seeks Scotland’s independence from the U.K.; and the anti-EU Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage.
All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs.
The debate comes during a week in which the political parties are launching their election platforms.
Labour plans to release its detailed manifesto on Thursday, promising a much bigger role for the state in the economy.
Labour economy spokesman John McDonnell told the BBC that the party would tackle society’s “grotesque levels of inequality.” He criticized the status quo, saying dozens of billionaires are living in the country while other people are lining up at food banks and “dying on our streets.”
Johnson’s Conservatives accuse Labour of peddling failed socialist ideas but in a shift in policy, the Conservatives are also wooing voters with promises of more public spending on health, education and infrastructure after almost a decade of cuts and austerity budgets.
The Tory campaign has been dented by renewed focus on allegations that Johnson gave favors and public funds to U.S. tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri — with whom he had a relationship — while he was mayor of London between 2008 and 2016.
Johnson has insisted that “everything was done with full propriety.”
The Green Party, meanwhile, released its platform, pledging a net zero carbon target by 2030. Co-leader Jonathan Bartley told the BBC the party wanted to introduce a frequent flyer tax and that it was against airport expansions.
“When there’s a war, when we’re facing an existential threat, we don’t hold back, we know that we have to tackle it,” he said. “Frankly, if the climate were a bank, we would have bailed it out by now.”
Several other televised campaign events are planned involving senior figures from up to seven British political parties, and Corbyn and Johnson are due to square off again in a BBC debate on Dec. 6.