Bluster from smirking Johnson; fudge from freshly trimmed Corbyn

John Crace

Teeth to be pulled. Eyes to be gouged. Throats to be slit. Most people had wisely made alternative arrangements. But there were still at least 4 million masochists for whom the first leaders’ debate was an essential warm-up to I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!. Had Boris Johnson been smothered in a cage full of rats or Jeremy Corbyn been force-fed termites, ITV would have had the surefire ratings winner of the year. Maybe next time.

Related: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clash in ITV election debate over 'NHS for sale' claim – live news

The prime minister had spent the morning in a blubberweight fight at a Manchester boxing gym, before making another toe-curlingly embarrassing video of him and Carrie Symonds campaigning and going back to his hotel to dishevel his hair. The Labour leader had been to the barbers for a beard trim and had then settled down to two cups of tea and a Caesar salad. Zen.

“I’m hoping the debate will be respectful and informative,” Corbyn said on his way into the Salford studios. Which rather suggested he had learned nothing from his previous televised debates. Because respect invariably comes thinly disguised as open contempt – the TV companies wouldn’t have it any other way – and, ever since the very first 2010 debate in which David Cameron and Gordon Brown underestimated Nick Clegg, no one has ever learned anything very much. Indeed, the whole purpose of the format is to be as uninformative as possible, with both party leaders sticking to set lines.

An hour before kick-off, the spin room began to fill. First in were Dawn Butler, Richard Burgon, Barry Gardiner, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Andrew Gwynne. Having taken a selfie to put up on Twitter, they positioned themselves in front of TV cameras, managing expectations and saying why Corbyn had basically already won.

The Tories held back their big guns of Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and James Cleverly. Raab was undergoing anger management therapy – “Try not to kill anyone this time, Dom” – while Gove was quietly explaining to Patel and Cleverly that their prime function was to say nothing. In the meantime, Nigel Evans was doing his best to hold the fort. “I’m the Z list,” he said sadly.

In the far corner of the room, the Lib Dems’ Tom Brake stood to one side, hoping someone might want to speak to him. No one did. The Brexit party’s Richard Tice wandered around looking slightly lost. Presumably he had arrived a little early for his graveyard 3am slot on the Shopping Channel and had accidentally made his way into the wrong building.

Still, Tice would have felt right at home in the ITV studio. All pretence that the debate was a serious contribution to the election campaign had been abandoned when the lights went up on a set that looked like a cross between a 1970s afternoon gameshow and an S&M dungeon. Julie Etchingham got things rolling by asking both leaders to make an opening statement. Corbyn looked uncharacteristically nervous, while Johnson couldn’t help smirking when trying to maintain his serious face.

Predictably, the first question was on Brexit. Bingo. It took only one sentence for Boris to utter his first lie. That he had a readymade deal that would deliver a free trade agreement with the EU that could be wrapped up in a matter of months. Etchingham arched an eyebrow. Was he going to die in a ditch on this? Mint some December 2020 coins? The audience sniggered. Corbyn did little better as he continually fudged the issue of whether he would back any deal he renegotiated with the EU. That, too, drew a ripple of laughter.

This rather set the tone for the rest of the hour. No one really landed any telling blows, with the whole show descending into second-rate light entertainment. Even Prince Andrew could probably have made a better fist of answering the questions. Despite talking over Corbyn and Etchingham at every opportunity – his ego can’t allow the possibility of conversation – Johnson reverted to bluster and lies while trying to steer everything back to his Brexit deal that he had rejected 18 months previously.

Corbyn couldn’t even take advantage of the most open of goals. One questioner asked about personal trust. Here was the Labour leader’s chance to ask Boris how many children he had, his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri and his broken promises to family and country. It would have been a slam-dunk moment that could have maybe changed the momentum of the election. But Corbyn blew it. The first half ended with an insincere handshake.

The rest was something of a non-event. Corbyn scored well on the NHS with a redacted document but the audience was so dispirited that the debate ended in a Blind Date chat. Corbyn would give Boris A Christmas Carol for Christmas: Johnson would give Corbyn some damson jam. No voters’ minds would be changed. The only winner was Etchingham who somehow held the shitshow together.

Yet despite all this, the debate had revealed something. That voters hold both leaders in open contempt and are in despair that one of them will end up as prime minister. Given the chance to show off their best selves, Johnson and Corbyn had merely proved they didn’t have one. The country was even more screwed than anyone had previously imagined.

John Crace’s new book, Decline and Fail: Read in Case of Political Apocalypse, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

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