I TUNED into the first live TV debate between the two main contenders to be the next British Prime Minister on Tuesday, fully expecting to be underwhelmed by the calibre of the two men.
By the end, I felt I had over-estimated them both!
There are 66 and a half million people in the UK, and if Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are the best they can come up with as the next owners of the keys of Number 10 Downing Street, then I can only hang my head in despair.
As one Twitter account in the UK on Tuesday put it: “Looking forward to Dumb And Dumber on TV tonight at 8pm.”
As I watched the bumbling blonde buffoon face up against his nemesis, the pompous, dithering septuagenarian, the famous line from comedian Tony Hancock came to mind: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”
Sadly, the joke here — that Magna Carta was a charter of rights and not a person — would probably have to be explained to the latest generation of Brits, who have emerged from an education system that appears — from this distance at least — to be unfit for purpose.
However, Britain’s creaking education system wasn’t even on the agenda for the debate between Johnson and Corbyn. There are far bigger topical fish to fry among the nation’s long-suffering voters.
Top of the list was Brexit — because, as the 1,247 days since the referendum have proven, a good chinwag always sorts out that thorny issue — followed by the country’s National Health Service, which has been accurately described by one politician as “the closest thing the British people have to a religion”.
Politicians from all parties are fond of pledging that “the NHS will be safe in our hands” as though the other parties will carelessly lose it behind the sofa or something.
On the TV, Johnson and Corbyn verbally jousted, as each dutifully repeated their agendas on Brexit and the NHS, and each stance was duly and ritually torn asunder by the other protagonist.
There was plenty of heat from both men — who famously cannot abide each other on any level — but very little in the way of light.
Unsurprisingly, the floating voter in the armchairs of Britain’s living rooms saw little to persuade them to vote for either.
All of which meant the debate was a victory on points for the Tory Johnson, who is well ahead of his Labour counterpart in the polls. Corbyn desperately needs to land a knockout blow on one of these TV sparring contests if he is to stand any chance of reining in that poll deficit.
With the UK General Election fewer than three weeks away, all the portents suggest Johnson will win an overall majority on December 12, allowing him to free himself from the straitjacket of a parliament stacked against him, and force through his Brexit deal.
That will surely be good news for Ireland, as the deal will enable this country to move on with no hard border, while the UK’s main parties continue to fight about Brexit like ferrets in a sack.
(The ensuing talks on a trade deal between Britain and the EU promise to be equally tortuous, but at least they won’t threaten then peace of this island, and we can get on with our lives and leave all that complex stuff to the politicians.)
A note of caution on the British election, however: Polls have proved remarkably inaccurate in recent times, and in the UK the Tory vote invariably ends up being over-estimated.
If that is the case next month, then the nightmare of another minority government raises its head, plunging the Brits, the EU and Ireland back into another nightmare stand-off on Brexit.
I recall advising similar caution before the last UK election, when Theresa May was tipped to extend her majority over Corbyn, but ended up having to form an unlikely and ultimately fateful alliance with the DUP to retain her slender grip in power.
This time round, my money is on a small Johnson majority... on the grounds that, as one observer pointed out this week, he is liked by many voters... if not actually trusted.
It is hard to find a similar argument for Corbyn. Many of the remainers who fear the economic consequences of Brexit will fear even more the economic consequences of ushering in the most left-wing Prime Minister in UK history.
The argument for voting for Johnson sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? He is liked, but not trusted... as though trust isn’t a vital trait in any relationship.
It does conjure up a rather accurate image though, of BoJo, the bumbling, carousing, amiable bundle of chaos who is a fine person to share a drink with, but whose acquaintance with the truth is shaky at best.
We all know people like that — likeable fibbers. You befriend them at your leisure, and trust them at your peril. Definitely not marriage material then. I hope the Brits realise who they are about to jump into bed with...
And... this just in — 2020, in Chinese parlance, is the Year of the Rat..
Talk about portents.