Corbyn outperforms expectations in head to head with Johnson

Dan Sabbagh

If the post debate poll is to be believed, it was almost a dead heat. Boris Johnson won the ITV debate in the eyes of just 51% of the viewers, compared with Jeremy Corbyn’s 49%, according to an immediate poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of Sky News.

It can be tempting to dismiss such immediate sampling, although such surveys are taken in the minutes after a TV debate ends and people are invited to express a simple, binary view.

And while Labour may not have won, the fact that Corbyn was very competitive will be a boost to the opposition party’s morale. A pre-match YouGov poll suggested that people believed Johnson would perform better by 37% to Corbyn’s 23%.

Johnson’s best line was clearly “get Brexit done”, which he shoehorned into nearly every answer, while Labour strategists will have winced when the audience laughed as Corbyn tried to explain his party’s contorted Brexit policy.

But there were no shortages of decent moments for Corbyn, from warnings about NHS selloffs, to a quip about nine chaotic Conservative years. On Prince Andrew, it was his show of sympathy for the victims of Jeffrey Epstein that struck the right note.

And if there was laughter for Corbyn on Brexit, Johnson was derided by the audience over trust, an attack line that Labour MPs say is proving effective on the doorstep with voters mindful of the prime minister’s complex private life.

Yet, in the run-up to the debate, Johnson’s personal ratings were considerably ahead of his rival’s, even if he is one of the most unpopular new prime ministers. What helps is that he is up against one of the most unpopular leaders of the opposition.

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Deltapoll, a polling firm that has asked the same question at the tail end of the past couple of weeks, records Johnson bobbing up from a -5 rating to 4. But Corbyn sits at a dismal -43, although he has gained five points in a week.

What is helping Johnson, for now, is that the prime minister remains popular with his own base – leave voters – while the Labour leader simply cannot rally remain voters in the same proportion.

Deborah Mattinson, who runs Britain Thinks, said that when asked to describe Johnson as a fictional character in focus groups “leave voters say something like James Bond, a figure who is a bit glamorous and gets things done, while remainers prefer Homer Simpson, unable to select which button to push”.

The biggest loser, meanwhile, was almost certainly the absent Jo Swinson, already battling against a marked fall in her personal ratings in the early part of the campaign, which have plunged from -9 to -23 in the last week, again according to Deltapoll.

The question now is whether the debate will have much impact overall. Corbyn has shored up his position, at a time when 3 million viewers were expected to tune in. But Johnson’s performance was solid enough and his is the party that remains an election-winning 12 points ahead.