Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clashed on Brexit, Northern Ireland, the NHS and national security in the final TV leadership debate ahead of next week’s general election.
The Conservative and Labour leaders went head-to-head for the last time before voters’ go to the polls next Thursday, with both hoping for a late boost to their campaigns in the final six days.
Both leaders stuck to their key campaign messages, with the prime minister reiterating his vow to “get Brexit done” and provide more nurses in the NHS.
Mr Corbyn warned of the potential impact of a post-Brexit trade deal with the US on the health service, and pledged to “end austerity” if he enters 10 Downing Street.
Viewers thought Mr Johnson narrowly came out on top, with 52% believing Mr Johnson had won and 48% thinking his Labour rival prevailed, according to a YouGov snap poll.
However, the result was within the polling margin of error and so was effectively too close to call.
In one of the debate’s more fractious moments, the prime minister questioned Mr Corbyn’s leadership over his handling of antisemitism allegations.
He said: “In his handling of this particular issue, his unwillingness to take a stand, to stand up for Jewish people in the Labour Party.
“His unwillingness to protect them, to put an arm round them, is in my view a failure of leadership.
“You cannot be neutral on questions like this, any more, in my view, than you can try to lead this country and be neutral on the issue of Brexit.
“It is a failure to take a stand, to have a point of view, that in the end will cost this country gravely and deeply.”
The Labour leader made reference to Mr Johnson’s previous newspaper columns, saying: “A failure of leadership is when you use racist remarks to describe people in different countries or in our society.
“I will never do that and my party will never do that.”
Ahead of Friday night’s debate, the Labour leader had used a morning news conference to reveal a confidential Treasury report which – he claimed – “drives a coach and horses” through the prime minister’s promise there will be no customs or trade border in the Irish Sea after Brexit.
Mr Corbyn used the BBC debate to challenge the prime minister to show a “degree of honesty” about the arrangements he had made for Northern Ireland in his Brexit deal.
Mr Johnson branded his rival’s claims as “not true”, adding: “I do find it slightly curious, to say the least, to be lectured about the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by a man who all his political life has campaigned to break up that union and actually supported for four decades the IRA in their campaign violently to destroy it.”
The Labour leader said he “always wanted to see a peace process” in Northern Ireland.
Mr Corbyn also warned of “chaos” and “huge job losses” if a Tory government was unable to get a free-trade deal with the EU by the end of next year.
The prime minister questioned how Labour would fulfil their vow to negotiate a new Brexit deal within three months, when Mr Corbyn was “neutral” and other frontbenchers were pro-Remain.
“Who is going to negotiate it because as far as I can see everybody on the Labour frontbench is campaigning to Remain apart from Mr Corbyn who is neutral on the matter?” he asked.
Following last week’s London Bridge terror attack, Mr Johnson said it was “extraordinary and wrong” that attacker Usman Khan had been released halfway through his prison sentence.
He claimed to have a parliamentary bill ready to end the early release of serious criminals, if the Tories’ win a majority next week.
Referencing the comments of one of the victim’s family, Mr Corbyn said: “What happened on the streets of London was utterly appalling and I was very moved by what Jack Merritt’s father said about what his son was trying to do.
“That he wanted a society where you did address the huge problems where somebody committed awful acts, of course, you must imprison them of course you try and rehabilitate them if you can.”
Asked what should happen to politicians who lie during election campaigns, Mr Johnson said offenders should get down on their knees in the House of Commons.
Mr Corbyn spoke of a “democratic process” to ensure politicians are held to account for what they promise, while he drew a cheer from the audience when mentioning the NHS funding promise on the side of the Vote Leave bus during the EU referendum.
Commenting at the conclusion of exchanges between Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “Tonight’s debate was British politics at its worst.
“Two leaders offering nothing new, nothing different and neither being honest about the pain Brexit will cause our communities.
“Johnson and Corbyn both proved tonight that they are unfit to lead our country and frankly their own parties.”
SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “It is clearer than ever that neither of these men should be able to determine Scotland’s future – they both represent a danger to our NHS and economy with their disastrous plans to ignore Scotland and drag us out of the EU against our will.”
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