Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clash over Brexit in first UK election TV debate

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn shake hands during the ITV Leaders Debate at Media Centre on November 19, 2019 in Salford, England | Jonathan Hordle/ITV via Getty Images

The two party leaders took questions from the audience in a debate broadcast on ITV.

LONDON — Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn locked horns on Brexit in a head-to-head debate in the run-up to the U.K. general election on Tuesday night. 

The Conservative and Labour bosses took part in their first live clash — and the first ever between just two prime ministerial candidates — in a debate broadcast on ITV ahead of the public poll on December 12. 

The prime minister said he would “absolutely” have a trade deal agreed with the EU by the current deadline — which is the end of December 2020 — after chair Julie Etchingham asked him: “Have you dug yourself a new ditch?”

Her quip was based on Johnson’s assertion earlier in the year that he would rather “die in a ditch” than extend the Brexit withdrawal deadline. He was later forced to delay the departure date. 

Elsewhere in the debate, Corbyn argued the government had held “secret meetings with the United States” about opening up the U.K.’s health markets to American firms as part of a post-Brexit trade deal.  

He flashed printed-out documents, obtained under Freedom of Information rules, setting out the detail of those meetings — all of it redacted. But Johnson said his claims were “absolute invention” and “completely untrue.”

The prime minister also said keeping the nations of the U.K. together was more important than securing Brexit, while Corbyn insisted he would do no deals with the Scottish National Party to allow a fresh referendum on Scottish independence as the price for putting him into Downing Street as part of a coalition, as suggested by Johnson.

At the end of the first half of the debate, the two party leaders shook hands on a promise to improve the tone of political debate in the U.K., which has become increasingly fraught in the wake of the vote to leave the EU.

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