Boris Johnson warmed up for his televised bout with Jeremy Corbyn with a visit to a boxing ring — obligatory for party leaders in this election — and emerged from the Salford arena on Tuesday night with the political equivalent of a few light bruises and slight cuts.
Mr Corbyn was a solid opponent, better at this form of political combat than his detractors might expect, but at this stage of the election campaign the Labour leader needed a knockout blow or at least a victory on points. Neither happened.
The snap YouGov poll conducted after the ITV leaders’ debate gave Mr Johnson a 51-49 victory, and it was Conservative ministers — half the cabinet was in the Media City spin room in Salford — who seemed most relieved by the result
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, told of the result of the poll, said: “Politicians don’t mark their own homework, the people do.” Tory officials said: “Corbyn needed a game-changer, but he didn’t get it.”
The contest was closely fought and ugly at times. Tom Brake, a Liberal Democrat MP, claimed: “Jo Swinson was the biggest winner and she wasn’t here.”
Both Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn at times seemed slow on their feet, the studio audience mocking them occasionally.
The prime minister’s weak point is trust. Asked whether the truth mattered, Mr Johnson replied: “I think it does.” Cue audience laughter. Mr Corbyn’s claim that he was determined to stop anti-Semitism in the Labour party and his attachment to a four-day working week were also greeted with mirth.
But for Mr Corbyn, going toe-to-toe with Mr Johnson for an hour and landing some blows along the way, the debate had some positives. For a leader with the worst poll ratings of any British opposition leader in history, a draw was in some ways a decent result.
The YouGov poll found that Mr Corbyn was viewed as more trustworthy than Mr Johnson (45 per cent against 40 per cent) and more in touch with ordinary people (59 per cent against 25 per cent) suggesting that the Labour leader can build on this performance.
However, the survey found that Mr Johnson came across as more likeable (54 per cent against 37 per cent) and, perhaps crucially, as more “prime ministerial” (54 per cent against 29 per cent).
The Labour leader predictably struggled against Mr Johnson’s onslaught on his Brexit position and his inability to say whether he would campaign for or against the improved exit deal that he intends to negotiate before putting it to a referendum.
Although Mr Corbyn said there would be “no deals” with the Scottish National Party, the Labour leader then gave the game away somewhat by suggesting that he could authorise a second Scottish referendum in the latter part of the next parliament if he won the election.
Mr Corbyn was stronger on the NHS and attacks on austerity — Labour has made “billionaires” the new bogeymen of the election campaign — and surprisingly more in tune with the audience in his approach to the royal family.
He was applauded for suggesting that it “needs some improvement” — a reference to the Duke of York’s recent television interview. Mr Johnson’s stout defence of the monarchy drew a more sceptical response.
But, with little more than three weeks until polling day, the Labour leader is running out of time to pick his own dismal approval ratings off the canvas.