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Analysing the ITV Prime Minister debate. by Michał Smejlis

With the UK’s third general election in just under 5 years taking place on the 12th of December, ITV hosted a 1-hour long ‘Johnson v Corbyn’ debate. For the first time in history, two leading candidates met on stage in an attempt to win over viewers and showcase where their parties stand on fundamental topics in British politics today.

Throughout the debate, the candidates were asked a wide variety of questions, covering topics like Brexit, the NHS and personal integrity. Tasked with convincing the audience that they are the ‘right fit’ for Prime Minister, each candidate needed to look and act like a Prime Minister, as specified by Michael Gove in the ‘initial thoughts’ section post-debate.

This exemplifies the reality that, there is so much more to debating other than just the meritocracy of an argument. Candidates need to master:

  • What the viewer hears,
  • What the viewer sees,
  • What the viewer feels.

At the centre of the debate was a topic that’s been holding Britain by the neck for the past three years – Brexit. Directed at both candidates, the first question was on the topic of whether either party can deliver Brexit or not; an issue frequently referred back to during other questions, especially by Johnson.

Was it designed to be this way? No. As mentioned, there were questions on personal integrity, deeper political and economic connections with the European union and even Christmas gifts! However, Johnson would continuously link his answers to these questions back to the Conservatives’ Brexit deal and Labour-induced deadlock in parliament, thereby tackling the most pressing issue for his Conservative base and most Britons.

So how did Johnson and Corbyn approach this topic?

Johnson’s major theme throughout the debate was the idea of ‘Conservative Clarity vs Labour Lacuna’ (Lacuna simply means a gap). In regard to Brexit, the public knew what to expect from the Conservative party, whereas Corbyn’s trajectory for the UK was unclear. Aside from aiming to initiate a second referendum within 6 months, Corbyn avoided answering the question of which side he would campaign for.

One of Corbyn’s retaliations to Johnson’s Brexit plan was that the US-UK trade deal negotiations could last a further seven years. Whilst certainly weakening the Conservative position, it didn’t provide a tangible alternative whereto voters can gravitate towards.

Another major topic at the heart of British politics is the NHS, especially amongst Labour voters. To his advantage, Corbyn spoke on the topic which resonates with many. However, his anecdote of a recently passed away friend who didn’t get the attention she required at the hospital, potentially due to NHS ineffectiveness, was highly questionable. Supposedly, the patient had recorded herself wishing that no one else would have to experience an ineffective NHS ever again. Corbyn blurred the line between him quoting the patient and Labour’s policy towards the NHS whereby the audience didn’t know the extent to which Corbyn extrapolated the patient’s thoughts.

Nevertheless, this trapped Johnson as Corbyn spearheaded the issue at hand. Johnson couldn’t bring up new points, switch topics or invalidate Corbyn’s argument for a strong NHS, which is crucial to many British people.

As such, Johnson could only argue why his approach to the NHS is better than Corbyn’s. Consequently, Johnson conceded ground by announcing the postponing of his planned corporate tax cut, a key and fundamental component of Conservative politics.

Contrasting answers

Throughout the debate, Johnson intentionally kept hammering down the idea of his Brexit campaign with clarity and confidence, which is certainly something viewers will vividly remember. For example, when the candidates were asked what they would give each other for Christmas, a non-political question, Johnson still managed to ‘comically’ bring up his Brexit campaign. The contrast of Johnson’s answer to what was expected, left the viewer with a solidified memory of the reason behind Johnson being on stage.

A clear-cut focus and irritable consistency were a double-edged sword for Johnson. ITV and the public wanted a general Prime Minster debate, not a Brexit debate. Corbyn passionately spoke about the climate change ‘crisis’, specific parts of released documents regarding the US-UK trade negotiations and more. This enabled Corbyn to captivate a larger audience by taking into account various other issues thereby giving viewers an idea of his stance on a wide array of topics. So even though Brexit may have been considered a focal point of this debate, there are a plethora of other issues that need addressing.

Body language

To come full circle, there is so much more to a debate other than the content of your argument. Debaters must become showmen and truly convince the viewers they’re the right person for the job. To look, act and talk like a Prime Minster are a must.

Unlike Corbyn, Johnson constantly maintained strong eye contact with the audience and the moderator, as well as always looking for and speaking to the camera whereby the candidate puts themselves on a one-way channel to the millions of people watching on the other side.

Unlike Johnson, Corbyn had wonky glasses throughout the debate. On one hand, it just looks silly, however, on the other hand, politics is a game of attention. When you have the eyes, you also have the ears.

At first, the audience appears to be part of the show’s visual background but throughout the debate it had evolved into an integral part of how people at home responded to the candidates’ speeches. The audience would laugh, clap, heckle and boo. Candidates may either use the crowd to their advantage by setting the foundation of the reaction and providing emotions experienced by people watching from their homes; make them laugh, make them clap!

Otherwise, the crowd may become a threatening annoyance: candidates will see the live audience as a disturbance. The audience’s reaction may interrupt the candidate’s speech, perhaps even cause them to lose their train of thought.

The Issue

Candidates had only one hour to not only sell themselves as the Prime Minister, but also prove why the alternative candidate is a poor fit. Therefore, they were required to utilize other methods of winning over the viewers. They had to not just master what the candidate says, but also the confidence with which he says it. To not just master what the viewer sees, but also how the viewer then actually perceives it; the idea of the number ‘6’ looking like a ‘9’ when looked at from upside down, and the other way around.

The art of curated perception is a key element of debate, yet it exists everywhere in our lives. Those who read beyond headlines, interpret beyond face value and understand that with which they disagree are in minority, by design. Do you?