There was uproar at the Question Time debate – but Johnson cut through, while Corbyn got stuck in his own ‘neutrality’

John Rentoul

The big news from tonight’s BBC Question Time Leaders’ Special is that Jeremy Corbyn would be “neutral” in the second referendum held by a Labour government if he wins the election.

The trouble is that this is the sort of question that interests journalists trying to squeeze a news story out of a pitiful performance by the Labour leader. It was of no interest to the studio audience. The question he was actually asked was, “Why do we have to vote on Europe again?” His answer began, “I think the demands of people...” It continued with: Some people wanted one thing, some people wanted another and “people didn’t vote to lose their jobs”, before it ended up with Corbyn saying he would take no position at all in the new referendum.

Previously it had been assumed that he would follow the instruction of the sovereign Labour Party special conference, convened for the purpose of deciding the party’s view in that referendum, to be held six months into a Labour government. But no, he confirmed to Fiona Bruce, the BBC presenter, at the end of his segment: he would take a “neutral stance” – “first heard here on Question Time”.

But actually I thought his answer to another question was more significant. A woman asked about free broadband at a time when the NHS needs more money so desperately – “Why is that a good use of taxpayers’ money?” Corbyn’s answer was a long waffle about how 95 per cent of people in South Korea have superfast broadband.

In other words, he didn’t understand the question at all. His hero, Nye Bevan, said: “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.” But Corbyn doesn’t think governing is about choosing. He knows nothing, and one of his supporters in the audience knew even less, asking him to confirm that, as prime minister, Corbyn would be against “Thatcher, Blair and the market”.

The order in which the party leaders appeared was presumably drawn by lots, but the gods were cruel to Corbyn by putting Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, up next. The contrast between the two was simply shocking. She is a serious and brilliant politician. I disagree with her politics as vehemently as I disagree with Corbyn’s, but she can make a case and hold an audience. On questions about a hung parliament and a new referendum on Scottish independence being the price of her support, she was effortlessly persuasive.

The only difficult moment she had was, inevitably, on defending her record in government. She was asked about drug deaths in Scotland and struggled badly, trying disgracefully to blame the historic problems of drug abuse on the country (that is, before the SNP government), and Westminster, for not letting the Scottish government reclassify drugs – as if that has anything to do with the terrible problem of prescription opioids.

Then it was Jo Swinson’s turn for the Liberal Democrats. She was more impressive than she has been up to now in this election, but her honesty and clarity in taking on some tough questions could not conceal the sinking feeling about her campaign.

She was forced to defend her role in coalition with the Tories by saying the Lib Dems won some battles, but lost others, and would learn. She seemed to be making headway with a Leaver who accused her of implying 17.4 million people were stupid and didn’t know what they were voting for. Swinson said she didn’t think Leavers were stupid; she disagreed with them. “You can disagree with me but you lost,” came the response.

Boris Johnson suddenly materialised. I assumed he would struggle to assert himself with an audience that sounded quite noisily left-wing and substantially Scottish, even though the programme was in Sheffield. Indeed, his first question to him was whether it was important for politicians to tell the truth. He tried to flannel about the failure to deliver Brexit being corrosive of trust, and was shut up by Bruce who forced him to answer the questioner’s specific concern – which turned out to be the injustice of raising women’s pension age.

Suddenly, the prime minister was in the clear. He had no answer. He was sympathetic, but he could not “magic up” the money for women’s pensions. He is someone who understands the language of priorities. He told the audience it wasn’t a priority, in effect. He was very sorry, but not everything could be a priority. And that was that.

From then on he had them eating out of his hand. There were some rough questions. One articulate young man nearly brought the programme to a standstill by insisting on finding out why the prime minister had suppressed the report on Russian interference in British democracy. There was no evidence of that, said Johnson, airily, dismissing concerns as “Bermuda Triangle stuff”.

Uproar, order restored and more savage questions, including several from doctors – one of whom said “people are dying” – but they listened to his answers, and most of these were genuine enough attempts by Johnson to engage seriously with the problems brought to him.

With skilful timing, Johnson brought his answers back to Brexit with just a few minutes left: getting Brexit done was the answer to everything, from the problem of trust to the economic dynamism needed to pay for public services.

By the end of the programme, Jeremy “Neutral” Corbyn seemed a colourless and distant memory from a long time ago.