For those of you who didn’t watch the leader’s debate on ITV, which hopefully was most of you, it was as dire as expected. Johnson just barked campaign lines in a chaotic, sometimes random way; he had nothing new whatsoever to say for himself. Corbyn looked tired and fed up and though he was a little better than Johnson, that’s saying very little.
Some are giving the victory to Corbyn on the basis of him being less bad and being perceived to be less bad than Johnson. The exit poll of viewers gave the nod to Johnson 51-49, yet given Corbyn’s much lower personal ratings coming into last night, that is a massive victory for Corbyn. The evening was also dominated by a scandal in which CCHQ changed their Twitter name to “factcheckUK” and their account to look like a neutral fact checking operation. This points to another victory for Labour.
But I don’t think Corbyn really got that much out of the debate. He didn’t land any lasting blows. Johnson was terrible, but how much anyone who was going to vote for him before last night will now change their minds about him is almost certainly miniscule.
No, I think that Jo Swinson might get the most out of last night for a few reasons. One is through her very absence. Some centre-left commentators are saying today that had Swinson been there, she would have wiped the floor with both Johnson and Corbyn. She probably would have given how diabolical they both were. But she also might have made gaffes, or annoyed potential Lib Dem voters in many other ways. We’ll never know, but what Swinson not being there last night allows people to do is imagine she would have been great. I don’t think this will go anywhere outside of a coterie of political commentators, but even having this bunch thinking and writing about the Lib Dems in a different way has benefits for the party.
I think the big advantage last could have given to the Lib Dems and Jo Swinson is that the takeaway from last night for most of the voting public seems to be “God they were both so awful, weren’t they?” General election campaigns tend to have one or two themes that dominate the whole thing. In 2017, it became “Theresa May is awful”, something that denied her a majority. If this time it’s “Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are awful” that could be a huge help to the Lib Dems. A half-hearted, negative vote for a party counts the same as an enthusiast one. If this debate helps set the tone going into polling day being “A plague on the houses of both of these charmless men” then the Lib Dems stand to gain, particularly as the Brexit party isn’t standing in most of their target seats and therefore aren’t around to act as a “none of the above” vote.