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Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn’s final election debate: academic experts on their claims

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, have gone head-to-head in the final live television debate before the UK votes on December 12. They were set a series of tricky questions by a live studio audience, who often referenced some of the less pleasant aspects of this campaign when addressing the candidates. So how did they do? Academic specialists have been investigating the key topics under discussion for some time so their work can help us gauge how successfully both men made their final pitch to the electorate.

Brexit uncertainty is damaging the economy

Ask the two party leaders about Brexit and things are bound to get heated very quickly. This final debate saw both men accusing each other of damaging the British economy by allowing Brexit uncertainty to continue. Corbyn says Johnson is not really going to “get Brexit done” with his plan and Johnson says Labour’s proposal to strike a new deal before holding a second referendum is a delay that is blocking billions of pounds worth of investment from flowing into the country.

Even before this election was called, Costas Milas, Professor of Finance at the University of Liverpool, had reached the same view – a lack of clarity over the nation’s future is harming its economic outlook. He made that clear in a series of easy-to-read charts.

He also concluded that only a fresh referendum can resolve the matter – but it’s not the kind of referendum Corbyn is proposing.

Northern Ireland and the future of the union

A few days prior to the debate, Corbyn released documents that, he says, prove Johnson’s Brexit deal will lead to trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, thus proving that he is prepared to put Brexit before the union. Johnson’s response was to say that Corbyn has never cared about the union and supported the IRA during the Troubles.

In short, the exchange became highly emotive and symbolic very quickly. But a recent research project suggests that unionist voters in Northern Ireland might actually be thinking about Brexit and the border in far more practical terms. It may not be the union-breaking issue the leaders think it to be.

Corbyn holds up leaked plans for Northern Ireland. PA

Feargal Cochrane, Professor of International Conflict Analysis, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent, took the time to actually ask these voters what they thought about the prospect of having a border down the Irish Sea after Brexit. And while they weren’t exactly excited about it, they were also not entirely opposed:

People become more flexible when mitigating factors are brought into the picture. For example, they might be more open to having an east-west border if they are reassured that border checks were to be electronic, with only some random physical checks of goods crossing the border. That becomes preferable to the prospect of physical checks on all goods at the border, which might follow a no-deal Brexit.

The respondents were also much more open to the idea of a border if it was coupled with a promise of more funding for Northern Ireland – something for Johnson to think about, perhaps.

Who has the right plan for the NHS?

The NHS is a central theme of this election and, sure enough, it was one of the first topics raised by an audience member – a woman about to restart training as a nurse. Both parties promise big spending so we’ve been sifting through their manifesto pledges. And both come in for similar criticism about how realistic they’re really being.

Maria Goddard, Professor of Health Economics, University of York, assessed Labour’s plans and concluded that its spending pledges amount to around and extra 4.3% per year – higher than historic averages. However, Goddard suggests the viability of Labour’s ambitious goals for projects like extra social care, mental health care and community care very much depend on how successful it would be at implementing its tax reforms. She also warned that however laudable many of the ambitious plans for staffing might be, the timeframe being proposed is unrealistic.

Johnson talks to NHS staff on a campaign visit. PA

Meanwhile, Paula Lorgelly, Professor of Health Economics at UCL, took on the Conservative manfisto’s NHS proposals. These amount to a 3.3% increase in spending “which falls well short of the 4% needed to address waiting times and the under-provision of much needed mental health services”. The party is promising 6,000 more general practitioners (GPs) and 6,000 more primary care professionals, as well as an extra 50,000 nurses. But, like Labour, the Conservatives failed to convince this expert that they’ve come up with a believable plan to pay for it all.

US trade negotiations will take years

Corbyn says far from “getting Brexit done” Johnson’s plan hinges heavily on the need to strike a trade deal with the US that will take seven years to negotiate.

Earlier this year, Michael Plouffe, Lecturer in International Political Economy at UCL, read over a document from the British government outlining its objectives for the US trade deal and produced an analysis. He said the UK looks to be in weak position, concluding:

The emphasis is very much on the UK aligning itself with US standards.

He found evidence that the US is eager to bring the UK into line with its (often lower) standards on food, agriculture, labour standards, environmental protection and anti-corruption measures and that its economic heft makes it the stronger partner. That’s not, of course, to say that it will get its way, but it certainly speaks to the likelihood of lengthy talks between to the two nations.

Which party’s policies keep the country safe?

The London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan, had already been convicted of a terrorism offence but was released from prison in 2018 after serving half his sentence. For two people so insistent that we should not politicise the attack on London Bridge that killed two people in the middle of this campaign, Johnson and Corbyn seem to have a lot to say about the policies each other’s parties have put in place that allowed such a situation to arise.

David Lowe, senior research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University Law School, specialises in terrorism and security policy. He helpfully set out the long series of changes to the legal framework in the UK that led to the current system. It turns out that the actions of both the Conservatives and Labour (and indeed the Liberal Democrats) have played their part over the years.

He also concludes that longer prison sentences are not the answer to this problem.

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