corbyn johnson debate
© Reuters / Jeff Overs
Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson and debate moderator Nick Robinson
Both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson performed satisfactorily at Friday night's UK pre-election leaders' debate, but arguably the winner of the evening was someone who didn't take part.

As leaders' debates go (and I'm not a big fan of this particular US import), it wasn't too bad. The BBC's Nick Robinson chaired it quite fairly and allowed both the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader to finish off their points. It was a far cry from the abysmal ITV 'debate' a few weeks earlier, which had one reaching for the mute button after a few minutes.

As was expected, Boris Johnson kept it simple, very simple in fact, focusing on what he (rightly) regards as Corbyn's and Labour's electoral Achilles heel: namely their support for a second EU referendum, with Remain as an option. One lost count of how many times the Prime Minister said "Get Brexit done" in the programme, or the times he said he still didn't know what Corbyn's position was. If the Tories do win the election, and they're currently very short-priced favourites to do so, then a major reason will be Labour's shift away from their 2017 "we will respect the referendum result" position to their adoption of a second referendum policy. Arguably it wouldn't be so bad if Corbyn had said his party would campaign for the Leave deal - that he said they'd get from the EU - but he didn't. You don't have to be a Tory to ask yourself: How can Labour get a better deal from the EU, if those negotiating it don't want to leave the EU in the first place?

If Brexit was Corbyn's weakest point, then the record of the past nine-and-a-half years of Tory governments is Johnson's. While Corbyn came over as very professorial in those glasses of his, reciting the facts and figures regarding poverty, underinvestment, cuts to the NHS and police, etc, he could, however, have been a bit stronger in hammering home the message that the Tories - by changing tack - are basically admitting at this election that most of the policies they've been pursuing for almost a decade have been wrong.

He also missed a trick when the debate moved on to the recent London Bridge terrorist attack. It was an ideal opportunity to attack the Tories for their neocon foreign policy - and remind viewers how Britain was effectively on the same side as Al-Qaeda militants when pursuing violent 'regime change' in Libya and Syria. He could have mentioned how Manchester Arena bomber Salman Abedi and his father were linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and how Britain facilitated the movement in and out of Britain of these extremists when the goal was toppling Muammar Gaddafi. Instead, he allowed Johnson to get brownie points for criticising (quite rightly) as "extraordinary and wrong" the automatic early release of convicted terrorists, like Usman Khan.

Corbyn could also have pushed back when challenged on Labour anti-Semitism. Why hasn't he called out the witch-hunt? Of course he was right to condemn anti-Semitism and all forms of racism, but he could have said that there was a political, indeed a geopolitical agenda, at play here too. He could have cited the article "The Contract on Corbyn" by Gideon Levy, published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which said that "the Israeli propaganda machine" had taken out a contract on the UK's leader of the Opposition.

Corbyn's best lines were on the economy and the NHS. If he had a 'gotcha' moment it was when he said that the government didn't need two years to tell Donald Trump that the NHS wouldn't be part of any US trade deal. A simple 'No' would have sufficed. Johnson cleverly attacked Labour for its previous support of PFI, and his charge that people on £20K a year would pay more tax under Labour could have been rebutted more clearly by Corbyn.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon tweeted of the debate: "That was utterly woeful. Two uninspiring men, both of them unsuited to be PM" but that was far too harsh. Corbyn and Johnson did okay: they would have both gone home reasonably pleased with their performances, but the latter would probably have been most relieved as he's the front-runner in the race and only had to avoid a crashing last fence fall. A poll straight afterwards gave it to Johnson 52-48 (ironically the same percentages as the 2016 EU referendum), but the most memorable - and indeed devastating comment of the night - came after the debate from Labour's Barry Gardiner, the Shadow International Trade Minister.

"This is not a One Nation Prime Minister," he said of Johnson's attempts to portray himself as a latter-day Harold Macmillan, "this is a one percent Prime Minister." He added: "The top one percent of this nation has seen, in the last ten years, its income go up by 185%. At the same time you have 4 million children in poverty. How do you justify that?" How indeed. It was the sort of let's cut to the chase, verbal knock-out punch that was lacking in the leaders' debate.
Neil Clark is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and blogger. His award winning blog can be found at He tweets on politics and world affairs @NeilClark66