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As a political strategist, this is what I think will happen in tonight’s general election debate

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The tension is already building all across the country in anticipation of what will take place this evening: It’s the first bushtucker trial of the new series of I’m A Celebrity and the country can’t wait.

A little later on this evening (and probably with a much smaller audience) we will be treated to another rumble in the jungle when Johnson takes on Corbyn in the first in a series of TV debates.

This will be the first televised head-to-head election debate between the PM and leader of the opposition in British history. In the past, PMs have ducked and dived these as it elevates your opponent and provides them with a platform to speak to a national audience.

The closest we’ve come to what we’ll see tonight was the series of debates which provided one of the most memorable moments of the 2010 general election campaign: ‘I agree with Nick’.

Clegg, then pretty much unknown to the wider electorate, got to stand on stage with then PM Gordon Brown and leader of the opposition David Cameron, instantly raising his status. Cameron and Brown then proceeded to jostle over who agreed with Nick more.

This led to Clegg-mania and the Lib Dem surged in the polls. While this ultimately didn’t translate to more seats being won by the Libs, I bet Johnson and Corbyn are happy that they don’t have to take this risk. In fact, it’s probably why they’ve agreed to the debate.

This evening, viewers will see what Labour and the Conservative strategists want them to see: a straight choice between Labour and Conservatives. No formidable Nicola Sturgeon, plucky Jo Swinson, or swaggering Farage to worry about making waves. This will reiterate the point already being made on election leaflets, through Facebook and Snapchat ads, and on the doorsteps around the country: a vote on 12 December for any party other than the big two is a wasted vote. Hold your nose and vote Conservative/Labour (delete as applicable). 

This is what we call the squeeze message and it’s the most effective weapon in the main two political parties arsenals. The Lib Dems know this, this is why they threatened legal action over their omission from the line-up.

I’m sure Johnson’s team will want to focus the debate on their core message: ‘This is the Brexit election. Let’s get Brexit done so we can move on to more important things like more police, better schools and investment in the NHS.’ 

Johnson will undoubtedly focus a lot of fire on Corbyn and his fitness to be PM, bringing up his past associations with terrorist organisations and his ambitious spending promises which would require significant borrowing and/or increased taxation. Johnson may well also see the debate as his opportunity to address his ‘relatability’ to the normal British family, a point which he spectacularly failed to convey on the BBC sofa during a bad tempered exchange with Naga Munchetty. 

Conversely, Corbyn doesn’t want to make it all about Brexit, the exact opposite in fact. Corbyn will want it to be about austerity and Tory cuts. He’d do well to make the debate all about Labour, as opposed to all about Corbyn. 

The types of Labour seats the Conservatives are targeting in the hope of flipping in the North and Midlands are stuffed full of working class people, traditionally Labour voters but not sold on Corbyn (or actually pretty hostile to him). 

The more Corbyn is front and centre, the less likely they are to vote Labour. For Corbyn to try and keep them from taking the plunge and voting Conservative (many I would assume for the first time ever) then he needs to appeal to their deep historical connection to the Labour Party and what it’s done for them in the past, contrasted with the memory of the Thatcherite policies, which led to pit closures and mass unemployment across these regions.

Both Johnson and Corbyn will be looking for the moment that allows their message to reach a wider audience than the one tuning in.

They’re looking for the soundbites which will run on the 6pm and 10pm news, and perhaps more importantly nowadays, the clips that can be pushed on social media to the types of voters they need to engage – namely those who haven’t made up their mind or possibly don’t even know there’s an election happening. 

These voters are the ones who are much more likely to be watching something else this evening.

More often than not the key moments in these debates are created by your opponent slipping up, and with Johnson and Corbyn you’ve got two gaff-prone politicians who should provide plenty of content for the social media teams in the respective HQs.

Will either Johnson or Corbyn land a knockout blow? Probably not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they deliver a few self-inflicted injuries.

They can at least take heart that there won’t be a Sturgeon Surge, Swinson Storm or Farage Fandom to worry about tomorrow.

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