Johnson, Corbyn to square off in first UK election debate

Johnson, Corbyn to square off in first UK election debate

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

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LONDON, United Kingdom (AP) — 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 lacklustre 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 December 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 favouritism 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 December 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 UK 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 January 31, 2020after the EU granted a three-month delay amid gridlock in Parliament over Johnson's Brexit deal.

The left-of-centre 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 UK; 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 criticised 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.

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