BORIS Johnson was the chief target of leading Remain voices at last night’s televised debate, which saw a six-strong panel rehash referendum talking points before a live studio audience.
The only man on stage, allegedly, the former London mayor was joined by Conservative junior energy minister Andrea Leadsom and Labour’s Gisela Stuart in supporting a British exit from the EU.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Conservative energy secretary Amber Rudd, and veteran Labour MP Angela Eagle fought the case for remaining in the union.
Despite doubtlessly intense preparation and mirror miming, none of the debaters landed any significant blows capable of altering the trajectory of the vote, just two weeks away.
The Remain camp had clearly identified Boris Johnson as the prime target on a stage of light hitters and he was widely condemned for not backing away from the Leave campaign’s controversial claim that the UK sends €350 million to Brussels each week.
That allegation is emblazoned across the side of Johnson’s Vote Leave tour bus, with the right-winger cynically pretending that he would pump that money into the NHS instead.
Nicola Sturgeon, who was the sole voice defending immigration, accused Boris of “driving around the country in a bus with a giant whopper painted on the side”, while Angela Eagle scolded the unruffled Tory telling him “get that lie off your bus”.
It was all the forced drama you would expect from a carefully choreographed political debate filled with well-rehearsed lines including “We need to look at the numbers – I fear the only number Boris is interested in is the one that says No 10” from Boris’ Conservative rival Amber Rudd.
The energy secretary, tipped as a future Tory leader, also described her erstwhile superior as “the life and soul of the party, but not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”, as all pretence of Conservative unity finally fell flat.
Like his fellow American Donald Trump, Boris does, however, have a knack for the natural rather than the rehearsed and saw his fair share of success with the audience, especially as he urged his prosecutors not to “reduce this argument to a lot of personal stuff”.
He also reiterated the flawed but emotionally powerful appeal to ‘take back control of the country’ and it was clear that the Remain camp have failed to learn that sentiment and soundbites remain a potent political force.
The debate followed another hectic day of canvassing which saw old foes Tony Blair and John Major claim a Brexit could lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, and former challenger for the Labour leadership, Andy Burnham, suggest the Remainers had made a fatal error in not appealing to the party’s traditional working-class base.
“We have definitely been far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull in recent times and we need to change that. Here we are two weeks away from the very real prospect that Britain will vote for isolation,” he said.