General Election: Looking beyond the leaders debate for policy insight

Our Public Affairs team review Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn’s general election live debate on itv earlier this week and the lack of real policy insight from the two leaders.

With the election campaign moving into its third week, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn went head to head for the first time in a live TV debate.

As they went into the clash, both men and their teams will have been hoping for different outcomes: Mr Johnson to shore up his lead in the polls, and Mr Corbyn to have a breakthrough moment to boost his flagging poll ratings. As the frontrunner, it was the Prime Minister’s to lose.

Predictably, each man returned repeatedly to their core messages. Mr Johnson reiterated his commitment to ‘get Brexit done’ to overcome parliament’s ‘dither and delay’, at every opportunity. By contrast, the Labour leader stressed his commitment to ending austerity and to supporting the NHS.

Unsurprisingly, there were flashpoints on each area but nothing dramatic enough to derail either candidate. This said, the laughter that greeted statements made by each of them – Mr Johnson on the importance of trust and Mr Corbyn on the introduction of a four day week – was an uncomfortable reminder that they both have a lot to prove to a sceptical public.

And as if to further underscore this point, as the debate concluded, there was another reminder that campaigns can be derailed very easily by a lack of trust when it emerged that the Conservatives’ press team had rebranded one of their twitter accounts as a ‘fact checking’ account during the debate, reinforcing concerns over integrity and trust.

A snap YouGov poll at the end of the debate found that it was a close-run thing, 51% for Mr Johnson vs 49% for Mr Corbyn. Predictably both sides are claiming this as a victory, each relieved that they didn’t fall into any significant bear traps or hand victory to the other party.

But what did we learn? The short answer is, not much. The debate was very light on content with no significant scrutiny of policy.

In reality, for companies looking for certainty and clarity there will be little to learn from this and subsequent debates. Instead, business should look to the manifestos as an opportunity to scrutinise the policies from each of the parties and to assess the potential impact on company priorities.

Likewise, announcements made at business events also provide important insight, with politicians less concerned about providing relatable messaging for the general public, and more focused on providing reassurance and direction to business. For example, just this week at the CBI annual conference we saw specific pledges from the party leaders on corporation tax and business rates.

Once the new government is in place and confronting the realities of the commitments made during the campaign, those businesses that are quick to engage will have the opportunity to set the agenda and influence policy outcomes.

However, for the moment we have three more weeks of campaigning and two more debates. Much can change during this time, but ultimately, regardless of the views of the media and commentators, the voting public will decide the two men’s fate on the 12th December.

Written by Clova Fyfe, Head of Public Affairs

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