As the election campaign enters its third week, the Conservatives are enjoying a 17-point lead, according to a YouGov poll. However cautious Tory MPs are quick to point out nothing should be taken for granted, as this is broadly speaking where the Tory party was at this point in the 2017 campaign. But for Labour to have a chance of forming a government come 12 December, Jeremy Corbyn needs to change the political weather. He has two set piece opportunities this week to do just that: Tuesday’s leader’s debate and Labour’s manifesto launch.
ITV’s planned television debate has the potential to move the dial. The first head-to-head debate of the campaign has led to cries of foul play from smaller opposition parties who have been excluded from the meet. The Liberal Democrats have taken legal action over the exclusion of their party leader Jo Swinson from the debate.
Both main parties believe that the arrangement ought to benefit them. During the 2017 snap election, Corbyn’s popularity climbed in the wake of multiple media appearances. In contrast, risk averse Theresa May’s decision to decline an invitation to take part in TV debates (on the grounds that she preferred ‘to get out and about and meet voters’) backfired. It went on to play into a narrative of a Prime Minister avoiding scrutiny and taking voters for granted. Johnson’s team are determined not to repeat the mistakes of 2017.
The majority view in CCHQ is that a head-to-head debate ought to play to Johnson’s strengths. Unlike Theresa May, Johnson is a confident and charismatic public speaker. The hope of a head-to-head debate is that this will cement this image further with voters. If the Tories can press the message that only two candidates can be prime minister on 13 December – Johnson and Corbyn – this should boost Johnson.