LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn clashed Friday night in the last head-to-head debate before a general election in six days — an underpowered showdown that saw both men stick to well-worn phrases and promises about their plans for Brexit and Britain’s future.
Johnson, a Conservative who supports Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU), tried to portray Corbyn as a waffler with no firm Brexit stance who would plunge the United Kingdom into more uncertainty.
Corbyn reminded viewers about the Conservative government’s spending cuts, and claimed Johnson was bent on striking a trade deal with the United States that might harm Britain’s interests.
Each questioned the other’s character. Johnson accused Corbyn of a “failure of leadership” for failing to stamp out anti-Semitism in his party.
Corbyn retorted that “a failure of leadership is when you use racist remarks,” as Johnson has done with glibly offensive language. In a magazine article last year he called Muslim women who wear face-covering veils “letter boxes.”
BBC moderator Nick Robinson suggested voters faced an “impossible choice” between two unpopular and untrustworthy leaders. That impression was reinforced Friday when two former prime ministers criticized their own party’s contenders.
Former Conservative premier John Major called Brexit the “worst foreign policy decision in my lifetime,” while ex-Labour leader Tony Blair urged voters to make the best of a “horrible” choice.”
Opinion polls put Johnson’s Conservatives ahead of the Labor opposition before the election next Thursday, in which all 650 House of Commons seats are up for grabs.
The Conservatives had a minority government before the election, and Johnson pushed for the December 12 vote, which is taking place more than two years early, in hopes of winning a majority and breaking Britain’s political impasse over Brexit.
He says if the Conservatives win a majority, he will get Parliament to ratify his Brexit divorce deal and take the UK out of the EU by the current January 31 deadline.
In the debate, Johnson contrasted that promise with Corbyn’s refusal to say whether he favored leaving the bloc or remaining.
Labour has promised to negotiate a new Brexit deal, then give voters a choice between leaving on those terms and remaining in the bloc. Corbyn says he would be neutral in that referendum. AP