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Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during a televised debate ahead of general election in London, Britain, Nov. 19, 2019.

Jonathan Hordle/ITV/Reuters

Britain’s lacklustre election campaign has been jolted to life with a lively television debate between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn that exposed deficiencies in both men.

The debate was the first time a Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have faced off in an election debate, and both leaders had a lot to lose with less than a month to go before the country votes on Dec. 12. Neither could claim victory from the hour-long tussle and a snap poll afterward found viewers split almost 50-50 over who won.

That could be a blessing for Mr. Corbyn, who has so far been unable to replicate the extraordinary campaign he ran in 2017 that saw Labour come from behind in the opinion polls to nearly winning on election day. Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives have enjoyed a double-digit lead in most polls so far and Mr. Johnson has run a tightly-scripted campaign to avoid any pitfalls.

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The debate covered a range of topics, from Brexit and health care to public trust in politicians and the scandal surrounding Prince Andrew. Mr. Johnson hammered away at Brexit, saying over and over that he would “get Brexit done”, and that a deal he has struck with the European Union could end the uncertainty. He answered almost every question with a reference to Brexit, even when asked what he would give Mr. Corbyn as a Christmas gift. “I would probably leave a copy of my brilliant Brexit deal,” he said to groans from the audience.

Mr. Corbyn tried to shift the focus to health care and other issues, hoping to portray Labour as the party that would end austerity and inequality. "We are a society of billionaires, and the very poor – neither of which are right,” he said. But he ran into trouble over his party’s position on Brexit. He plans to negotiate a new deal with the EU within three months and then hold a referendum on it, but he has not said how he would vote in that referendum. That has left many voters confused and Mr. Johnson seized on the issue to repeatedly ask Mr. Corbyn how he would vote in that referendum. The Labour Leader evaded the question, but shot back that Mr. Johnson would sell out the country’s National Health Service in a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States.

When asked about the allegations surrounding Prince Andrew and his association with the late U.S. pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, Mr. Corbyn said the monarchy “should not be above the law.” Mr. Johnson appeared to offer some support for Andrew by saying that the Royal family was “beyond reproach.”

Neither leader appeared to leave much of an impression on members of the studio audience or viewers. And a snap poll by YouGov found 51 per cent of those surveyed thought Mr. Johnson won, while 49 per cent picked Mr. Corbyn as the winner.

“It didn’t help me make up my mind,” said Beverly Davis, who lives in Wales and was among a handful of audience members who asked the leaders a question. She wanted to know about their spending commitments and she felt neither gave a straight answer. Mr. Johnson “just bumbled over Brexit all the time,” she said, while adding that Mr. Corbyn “needed to be a bit more passionate.” Ms. Davis supported leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, but she now believes the issue should be put to another referendum. She has also traditionally voted Labour, but isn’t convinced by Mr. Corbyn and she’s leaning toward Plaid Cymru, a Welsh party that opposes Brexit.

Omar Chehab left the debate feeling disenchanted with Mr. Johnson. Dr. Chehab is a cardiologist in London, and during the debate he asked both leaders about the state of the country’s National Health Service. He said Mr. Johnson just went to his rehearsed lines and offered no clear strategy. He was also turned off by Mr. Johnson’s constant return to Brexit. “You do it one, two, three times, when you keep doing it I think that’s going to hurt you and it turned off the audience,” he said. However, he also found Mr. Corbyn “a bit tame” and lacking conviction.

Fahad Sayood, who also watched the debate in the studio, was disappointed by the exchanges. He too isn’t sure how to vote and the debate didn’t help make up his mind. “There’s so much to say and yet so little said.”

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This was the first of three debates that will be held over the next couple of weeks. The others will include leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Brexit Party and Scottish National Party.

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