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Joshnson, Corbyn spar over Brexit in first election debate

  • Published at 04:19 pm November 20th, 2019
Boris Johnson-Jeremy Corbyn
Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are seen during a televised debate ahead of general election in London, Britain, November 19, 2019 Reuters

Johnson relentlessly tried to keep the focus on his plan to finally take the country out of the European Union, reiterating his campaign mantra to 'get Brexit done'

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn traded blows on Tuesday over Brexit and the health system as they vied for votes during the first ever head-to-head TV debate.

The prime-time event, held in Manchester and broadcast on ITV, presented an opportunity for a potentially game-changing moment in an election campaign so far characterised as lacklustre. 

But neither candidate appeared to land a knockout blow in the first of several planned televised debates, some also involving other smaller parties' leaders, ahead of the December 12 poll.

Frontrunner Johnson, who took over as the leader of the ruling Conservatives in July, relentlessly tried to keep the focus on his plan to finally take the country out of the European Union, reiterating his campaign mantra to "get Brexit done."

"We certainly will come out on January the 31st as we have a deal that is oven-ready," he said, also vowing to complete a future trading relationship with the bloc by 2021.

But in the testiest clashes of the hour-long debate, Corbyn said his rival's timetable was unrealistic and that Johnson was poised to sell out Britain's cherished National Health Service (NHS) in a future trade deal with the United States. 

The veteran socialist accused Johnson of holding "a series of secret meetings with the United States in which they were proposing to open up our NHS markets to American companies."

"You're going to sell our national health service out to the United States and big pharma," Corbyn said, waving redacted documents he said were accessed under freedom of information laws that detail preliminary UK-US negotiations.

Johnson responded that the accusations were "an absolute invention."

"The single biggest threat to our economy and our ability to fund the NHS is our failure to get Brexit done," he said. 

'Leave or Remain?'

Tuesday's debate was the first time voters had seen only the leaders of Britain's two main parties, which between them have held power since 1922, face off on TV.

Other smaller parties were excluded this time - a format they unsuccessfully challenged in court.

Johnson has held a double-digit lead over Labour in opinion polls for weeks, making it his contest to lose.

Corbyn is seeking to repeat the success of the last election in 2017, when he came from a similar position to deny the Tories an outright win with promises to end austerity and deliver change "for the many, not the few."

The two leaders answered questions submitted by viewers in front of a live audience, with topics ranging from trust in politicians to the future of Scotland, as well as the British monarchy.

But the discussion repeatedly returned to Brexit - the defining issue that has paralysed British politics since the 2016 referendum. 

Corbyn vowed to renegotiate Johnson's deal and hold another referendum, appealing to around half of Britons who still oppose the result of the 2016 Brexit vote.

But the Labour leader has yet to say how he would campaign in that referendum - drawing ridicule from Johnson.

"Are you going to campaign for Leave or Remain?", the Conservative leader asked Corbyn, who refused to commit.