Analysis: Labour are 'in trouble' unless they 'win big' in TV debate

19 November 2019, 13:34

If Jeremy Corbyn has any chance of becoming PM he needs to "win big" tonight
If Jeremy Corbyn has any chance of becoming PM he needs to "win big" tonight. Picture: LBC/PA
Theo Usherwood

By Theo Usherwood

The first TV debate between party leaders takes place this evening with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn set to clash ahead of the general election.

Tonight’s debate is crucial for Jeremy Corbyn. He needs to win, and win big.

The Tories are up to 16 points ahead of Labour in the polls. From the Labour leadership’s point of view that gap must start closing, otherwise the party is in trouble.

Salford’s head-to-head debate is a significant opportunity for Mr Corbyn to persuade many of his own voters that their future does not lie with a majority Conservative government.

But for Labour leader, this is not just about landing blows against Boris Johnson. This is also about scoring points against Jo Swinson in the yellow corner.

The Liberal Democrats – despite a last minute court challenge – have been excluded from the debates, along with the Scottish National Party.

Mr Corbyn also needs to persuade pro-Remain Labour voters, in university cities like Cambridge and Sheffield, that the best way to stop Brexit is to vote for him and secure a second referendum. Meanwhile, he must simultaneously convince them not to vote for the Lib Dems, as that will only lead to a much greater risk of a Conservative majority.

For the prime minister, a messy score draw will suffice.

Like Labour's chief, he will be trying to capitalise on the absence of the Lib Dems. His message to Remainers: vote for me and this nightmare will be over. Vote for Jo Swinson and you will land yourself with a Labour-led government.

In this respect, you can expect Boris Johnson to divide his message evenly between Brexit and attacks on Jeremy Corbyn.

Tory candidates know the Labour leader is proving unpopular on the doorstep. But they also know many voters like their local Labour MP.

In 2017, many Labour parliamentarians returned from the battlefield believing their constituents thought it was impossible Mr Corbyn could become PM. But they took the credit as a hard-working constituency MP and secured enough votes to retain their seats. Tory strategists do not want to repeat this phenomenon.

To that end, do not expect Mr Johnson to repeat the mistake of other Conservative leaders by belittling the Labour leader as somebody who can never become prime minister.

There will of course be the snap verdict.

But these debates, more than any other, are a team effort.

Whether the Tories or Labour triumph depends very much on what their respective teams can take away as key excerpts from the debates and turn them into content that flies on social media.

'Johnson versus Corbyn: The ITV Debate' will be live on LBC from 8pm.