British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went head to head over Brexit on Friday in the last televised debate before next week’s UK general election that will determine the path for Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Six days before Britain votes in its second national election in less than three years, the debate is seen as the last chance for Corbyn to squeeze Johnson’s lead in the polls, which mostly point to victory for the prime minister.
The two leaders set an ill-tempered tone to the debate by battling over how to leave the EU. Johnson ridiculed Corbyn’s support for a new referendum in which Corbyn has said he would remain neutral, while the Labour leader said the prime minister’s pledge to “get Brexit done” actually meant seven years of trade talks.
More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, the December 12 election will determine when, how and even whether Brexit happens.
“We have ample time to get on and build a new free trade partnership, not just with the EU but with countries around the world,” Johnson said in the BBC television debate.
But Corbyn countered that it would take the government seven years to negotiate a trade deal with the United States.
Polls show Johnson’s governing party is well ahead of Labour. A Panelbase survey on Friday showed the Conservatives extending their lead slightly over the opposition party to nine points, up from eight a week ago.
Johnson, who renegotiated a new divorce deal with the EU in October, has promised to “get Brexit done”, a slogan he has repeated constantly during campaigning to try to win over Labour supporters who backed leaving the bloc, and those who are simply fed up of the political haggling over the issue.
Britons voted by 52pc-48pc in 2016 for Brexit but parliament has been stuck in deadlock over the way forward. If Johnson wins the majority he says he needs, Britain will leave the EU by January 31 and then seek to enact a trade agreement with the bloc by the end of 2020.
With less than a week to polling day, the Labour leader warned of “chaos” and “huge job losses” if a Tory government was unable to get a free trade deal with the EU by the end of the year.
Corbyn highlighted leaked Treasury documents released earlier in the day which he said showed Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement meant there would be customs checks and restrictions on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Appearing before a live studio audience in Maidstone in a debate hosted by the BBC, the Prime Minister retorted that the claims were “not true”.
He added: “I do find it slightly curious to say the least to be lectured about the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by a man who all his political life has campaigned to break up that union and actually supported for four decades the IRA their in their campaign violently to destroy it.”
Corbyn in turn challenged Mr Johnson to show a “degree of honesty” about the arrangements he had made for Northern Ireland.
He said: “He spoke at the DUP conference and said there would be no restrictions whatsoever. We now know there are restrictions. He could and should have said that at the time.”
Mr Johnson questioned how Labour could negotiate a new Brexit deal as it has pledged to do when Corbyn was “neutral” and other frontbenchers were pro-Remain.
“Who is going to negotiate it because as far as I can see everybody on the Labour frontbench is campaigning to Remain apart from Corbyn who is neutral on the matter?” he said
“How can you get a deal, a new deal from Brussels for Brexit, if you don’t actually believe in it? That’s the mystery that I fail to understand.”
Johnson also brushed off an intervention by former prime minister John Major who suggested he would back former Tory MPs now standing as independents after having the whip withdrawn.
“Unlike Mr Major, I lead a party that is now totally united,” he said.
With additional reporting from Press Association
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