Johnson vs Corbyn: Will style or substance win the day in first TV debate?

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the opposition gear up for their first TV debate Credit: PA

Tuesday night’s debate on ITV will be Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn’s first major clash of the election, but how will they coax those precious swing voters off the fence?

– Position

Mr Corbyn has always been a champion of the hard left but has opted to stand stage right for ITV’s debate – his favoured position over the course of his debating career.

Is it just a preference or could it be a subliminal message? Tony Koutsoumbos, director of the Great Debaters Club, thinks it might be.

Mr Koutsoumbos said: “There’s no generic benefit to standing stage right, but to viewers it shows him standing on their left which is perhaps how he wants to be perceived generally and to reinforce that visually.”

Credit: PA Graphics

– Speech order

After winning the draw, the Labour leader also chose to give the first speech – an advantage coveted by all debaters.

“The benefit of going first is huge – you get to set the agenda of the debate if you go first,” Mr Koutsoumbos said.

“If that first statement has set tongues wagging and got people really engaged, then there’s a good chance that they’ll pay slightly less attention to Boris Johnson’s opening statement because they’ll be looking for responses to that first statement.

“It’s his chance to decide what should and shouldn’t be important in the debate.”

While missing the chance to set the tone, the Prime Minister can take consolation in the fact he will get the last word.

“There’s always an advantage given to the person who speaks last for the very simple reason that anything they say in that statement can’t get a response from the other side,” Mr Koutsoumbos said.

“So if he chooses that closing statement to maybe sling a bit of mud, he will deny Jeremy Corbyn the opportunity to respond to that in real time.”

  • Host and moderator Julie Etchingham has shared her thoughts, preparation details and behind-the-scenes details on the ITV debate

– Style

Mr Johnson is famous for his ability to wing speeches with no preparation – or even a firm idea of whom he’s addressing – so should Mr Corbyn expect to be on the back foot in this debate?

Not necessarily, says Mr Koutsoumbos.

“As a speaker and as someone capable of really moving audiences, I wouldn’t write off Jeremy Corbyn,” he said.

“I also wouldn’t over-state Boris Johnson’s abilities either – he’s someone who’s very good at speaking off the cuff, or at least sounding like he’s speaking off the cuff, when he’s just giving a speech.

“But speaking in a debate is not the same as giving a speech – you’re having your every claim scrutinised and he will want to think more carefully about what he will say.”

– Content

Since becoming prime minister, Mr Johnson may also be worried his way with words has left him.

Painful moments since his appointment include a police officer collapsing as he mangled the caution during a speech in Wakefield, and a speech to the UN in which he described a future where “your fridge will beep for more cheese”.

Credit: PA Graphics

So, will the audience spot a chancer who’s light on detail? Don’t count on it, says Mr Koutsoumbos.

“People will say they want substance in an election, certainly, whether they think they’ve actually heard that or not will depend on how well Jeremy Corbyn holds Johnson accountable for the claims he makes,” he said.

“We poll our audiences after our debates and we’ve often seen speakers who may not have been massively prepared but they sound very confident.

“If they sound very enthusiastic and the other side doesn’t have an awful lot to say about what they’ve said, then the audience will compliment them – people will think they’ve heard a very strong, substantive argument even if they haven’t.”

  • Johnson v Corbyn: The ITV Debate will be broadcast at 8pm on Tuesday 19 November, with the ITV Election Interviews broadcast at 10pm.