First TV election debate: five things to look out for tonight

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn go head-to-head live on ITV

(Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Tonight will see Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn take to the stage for the first televised debate of the general election.

Hosted by ITV newsreader and journalist Julie Etchingham, who chaired the Conservative leadership debates earlier this year, the event is the first opportunity for the party leaders to address the nation.

Here are five things to look out for.

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Johnson’s four-question challenge

Throwing down the gauntlet to Corbyn, Johnson has already demanded that the Labour leader answers four questions in tonight’s debate.

The prime minister has said that Corbyn must clarify whether he would vote Leave or Remain in a second referendum, whether he backs Labour’s conference policy to extend freedom of movement, how much extra he would pay the EU for market access and if he can guarantee that every Labour candidate will back his Brexit policy.

The Daily Telegraph reports that Johnson wrote to Corbyn, saying: “The public have a right to know where the two candidates for prime minister stand on the big questions facing the country at this election. So far, you have ducked those questions.”

So expect Johnson to try to ask the Labour leader more questions than he answers himself.


The Labour Party last week filed a complaint with Ofcom about Sky News framing the December election as “the Brexit election”. That the party has taken issue with a broadcaster, claiming that the slogan breaks impartiality rules, gives some insight into how Corbyn might approach the subject of Brexit tonight.

Labour’s Brexit position is coherent but complex, and requires lots of explaining. Johnson, however, will want to stay on Brexit for as long as possible, because it gives him the opportunity to hammer home his slogan that a vote for his party, is a vote to “get Brexit done”.

The Guardian warns viewers to expect “sound and fury, but pretty much no new information” on Brexit, with Johnson “again pledging to pass his deal before Christmas” and Corbyn explaining the “somewhat more complex renegotiate-and-put-to-the-people solution”.

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Catchphrase bingo

Theo Bertram, a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, says leaders are drilled with catchy lines ahead of election debates.

The Tories have tried to frame themselves as the party that will deliver Brexit, while Labour wants this to be an election in which normal people can vote to take on the “establishment elite”, The Independent reports.

With that in mind, expect to be bombarded by the two leaders’ favourite catchphrases. For Johnson, there is “get Brexit done”, but also “dither and delay” and “coalition of chaos” when talking about the opposition - and, as the Guardian notes, “40 new hospitals”.

Corbyn’s favourite lines are the now classic “for the many, not the few”, with new additions including “propped up by billionaires” and “British broadband”.

The social media battle

The High Court yesterday threw out the Liberal Democrats’ attempt to get their leader, Jo Swinson, on stage this evening, while the Scottish National Party (SNP) will also not be present.

While the two parties can now take their complaint to Ofcom, it means that neither party will be able to broadcast their policies to the nation tonight. That doesn’t mean they won’t try though, with social media likely to be the secondary battleground.

Both parties will no doubt have their social media teams prepared to give a running commentary on the head-to-head, as well as pushing their agendas. So, for an alternative view, tune in to @LibDems and @theSNP on Twitter.

Questions of character

While former PM David Cameron would approach debates with an armoury of personal anecdotes, the current party leaders are likely to be uncomfortable answering direct questions about their personal lives and character.

As the Guardian notes, Johnson will want to sidestep questions about his relationship with US tech businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, as well as anything that delves into his family life. The newspaper adds that voters may find it “eye-opening that their prime minister refuses to be pinned down on even a basic element of his family biography”.

Behind the other lectern Corbyn, who is famously frosty about his personal life, will want to avoid being pinned down on Labour’s anti-Semitism issues. The Guardian adds that getting caught up on that issue will leave the Labour leader on “very perilous ground”.

Personal questions have become a fixture of the presidential-style debates, but neither side will want to dwell on them too much tonight.

Johnson v Corbyn: The ITV Debate, Tuesday 19 November, 8pm (ITV)

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Joe Evans is the world news editor at He joined the team in 2019 and held roles including deputy news editor and acting news editor before moving into his current position in early 2021. He is a regular panellist on The Week Unwrapped podcast, discussing politics and foreign affairs. 

Before joining The Week, he worked as a freelance journalist covering the UK and Ireland for German newspapers and magazines. A series of features on Brexit and the Irish border got him nominated for the Hostwriter Prize in 2019. Prior to settling down in London, he lived and worked in Cambodia, where he ran communications for a non-governmental organisation and worked as a journalist covering Southeast Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism from City, University of London, and before that studied English Literature at the University of Manchester.