Deal or no deal?
20 November 2019
Patrick Hogan, Senior Account Manager, 3×1 Group
Last night featured the first TV debate of the campaign, with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn facing off in an hour-long ITV special. The SNP and Liberal Democrats were missing from proceedings, a decision both parties tried, and failed, to overturn through a legal challenge. They were instead included in a post-I’m a Celebrity… interview programme alongside the Greens and Brexit Party.
The encounter between the Prime Minister and Labour leader offered up more heat than light. Neither side appeared to land a decisive blow, a view confirmed by a closely split YouGov snap poll following the debate. This found 51 per cent of viewers thought the Prime Minister “performed best overall” as opposed to 49 per cent for the Labour leader.
Johnson wasted little opportunity to deploy his “get Brexit done” messaging. Corbyn was more comfortable on safer terrain like the NHS. That said, the audience seemed less than impressed with either man.
It was interesting to note both Johnson and Corbyn’s manoeuvrings around the issue of Scottish independence. Both were asked early on whether they considered whether the union was “worth sacrificing for Brexit”. Corbyn, after a week in which he was criticised for not having a clear stance on indyref2, spoke about the implications of Johnson’s Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.
By contrast, Johnson said his Brexit deal preserved the union while honing-in on the prospect of a post-election pact between Labour and the SNP as a reason for voting Conservative. He warned that the price of any such deal would be a second independence referendum. Corbyn pushed back on this and reiterated his stance that there would be no referendum “in the early years” of a Labour government. This of course does not explicitly rule out the possibility of one being held at all, nor, therefore, the possibility that a post-election agreement between the two parties may ultimately be struck.
In the interview programme that followed the debate, Nicola Sturgeon said her main goal was to simply deny the Conservatives the keys to Downing Street. Noting the Labour leader’s fluid position on indyref2, she said “Jeremy Corbyn’s position on this does change almost every day” but that there was a larger principle of Scottish self-determination at stake that needed to be respected by the next UK government.
Viewed from a certain perspective, the dynamics of this election feel familiar. In 2015, the Conservatives argued to good effect that the only way Labour could form a government was through SNP support. In 2017, indyref2 emerged as a key issue. Neither Labour (in 2015) nor the SNP (in 2017) profited as a result.
Both issues are on the agenda again in 2019. However, the situation may play out differently. With Labour’s path to an outright majority appearing challenging at best, Corbyn appears less concerned about the possibility of a pact with the SNP than Ed Miliband did four years ago.
Meanwhile, the protracted Brexit process has given fresh life to the independence debate. Polling suggests it may be unionist parties who lose out on 12 December north of the border.
With Labour and the SNP seemingly reliant on one another to achieve their goals, look for a delicate dance to play out between the two until polling day.
For more information on 3×1’s public affairs services including political monitoring, please email phogan@3×1.com