The ITV Boris Johnson vs Jeremy Corbyn debate, fact checked

19 November 2019

On Tuesday night a televised debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, the Labour and Conservative candidates to be the next prime minister, took place on ITV. We fact checked some of the key claims and major topics from the debate. We also expect to write more about what the leaders said over the coming days.

Honesty in public debate matters

You can help us take action – and get our regular free email


The first key debate of the night focused on Brexit, and how the respective leaders would deal with it as Prime Minister.

Jeremy Corbyn attacked Boris Johnson for wanting a trade deal with the USA, which he said would take seven years to negotiate. He later suggested that Mr Johnson was pursuing a “Canada-style” deal which he said took seven years to negotiate.

The EU’s trade deal with Canada took five years to negotiate, and another two before it was provisionally applied. That doesn’t mean a UK-US trade deal necessarily would take as long. We’ve not seen any robust predictions for how long a UK-US deal would take, and we don’t yet know exactly what would be on the table during discussions.

Some major EU trade deals (for example with South Korea and Ukraine) have taken longer than seven years to provisionally implement, while others have been quicker than that.

Mr Corbyn then shifted to matters closer to home, as he said Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal creates a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland—which Mr Johnson denied.

It’s correct that checks will have to take place on goods crossing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, if Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement is passed. This will kick in at the end of the transition period, unless or until the UK and EU sign a trade agreement superseding it.  The transition period would last until December 2020 at the earliest, or at the latest December 2022.

This is widely referred to as a “border down the Irish Sea”, and we've explained the situation in more detail here.

There was also some debate about Labour’s proposed timeline for Brexit, renegotiating a new deal within three months and holding a second referendum within six months. We can’t say definitively whether that would be possible, but the independent think tank the Institute for Government has described that timetable as “hard to meet”.


During the debate Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clashed about whether or not the NHS would be ‘on the table’ in post-Brexit trade negotiations with the USA.

UK ministers have said it won’t be ‘on the table’, and it’s unlikely a deal would wholly redesign the NHS. But it is possible drug prices could increase as a result because that fits with US priorities from its past negotiations.

Jeremy Corbyn claimed that there are 33,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS. This actually seems to be an underestimate. Figures from NHS Improvement show there were just under 40,000 nursing vacancies in NHS trusts in England between January and March 2019. This is based on management information and is not an independently-verified official statistic, so should be treated with some caution.

Boris Johnson then said that the Conservatives are putting a record amount of money into the NHS—£34 billion. That’s roughly the cash increase that was announced last year for the NHS in England between 2018/19 and 2023/24. But this figure doesn’t account for inflation during that time and so isn’t very meaningful. Once you account for inflation the figure is £20.5 billion. We’ve written more about spending on the NHS here.

Mr Johnson also added that the Conservatives are upgrading 20 hospitals and that a programme for 40 new hospitals is going ahead. Later in the show Mr Corbyn responded that in actual fact they were only reconfiguring six hospitals. This all needs a bit more context.

In his first speech as Prime Minister earlier this year Boris Johnson announced that 20 hospitals would be receiving upgrades and two weeks later published a full list of these hospitals in England and some details about the spending (which wasn’t quite what it initially seemed).

In September the party also announced that six hospitals in England have been given the money to upgrade their buildings within the next five years. Up to 38 hospitals are being given money to develop plans for their hospitals between 2025 and 2030, but not to actually begin any building work.

Jeremy Corbyn also said that four million people were waiting for operations. As of September 2019 (the latest data), there were 4.4 million referrals for treatment on the NHS in England, where the treatment had not yet begun. Not all patients will be waiting for operations though: they could also be waiting to receive prescriptions, or counselling.

The economy & inequality

Jeremy Corbyn mentioned “increasing inequality”, a common line from Labour through the campaign, but one that depends very much on how you define it. 

Using the most common measure for income inequality, inequality has not changed much over the past three decades.

The “gini coefficient” ranks income inequality on a scale from 0% to 100%, where 0% is no inequality at all, and 100% is maximum inequality (essentially, a country where just one person earned all the income).

The UK’s gini score in 2017/18, after housing costs are taken into account, is 38.6%, slightly down on the 2009/10 score of 40.3%.

But gini is not the only measure for income inequality and not perfect.

Robert Joyce, deputy director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has said: “The Gini is masking different things going on, like the fact that the top 1% is still pulling away from everyone else.” That’s true. While income inequality measured by the gini coefficient stabilised after 1990, the share of income going to the top 1% continued to increase.

However, even this rise seems to have been checked by the financial crisis. Since a small fall directly after the financial crisis it has remained relatively stable.

It’s worth saying that while income inequality hasn’t changed much over the past few years, compared to other countries it is relatively high. In 2017 the UK had the eighth-highest income inequality in the EU.

Jeremy Corbyn also said that there had been “a growth of extreme poverty” in the country. The percentage of people in extreme poverty or ‘severe low income and material deprivation’ has risen slightly from 4% in 2010/11 (when the current methodology was established) to 5% in 2017/18.

Mr Johnson referenced nine years of year-on-year economic growth which is correct. The UK's GDP has grown each year since 2010.

He also talked about corporation tax, saying that it is “already the lowest in Europe”, while Jeremy Corbyn “would whack it up to the highest in Europe”.

The UK’s corporation tax is not the lowest in Europe. It’s currently 19% in the UK, but in Ireland it’s 12.5%, in Lithuania it’s 15% and in Hungary it’s 9%.

We don’t know Labour’s policy for corporation tax as its manifesto isn’t out yet, but its proposal at the last election was to raise corporation tax to 26% by 2020/21, which wouldn’t be the highest in Europe. For example, in France, it’s currently between 31% and 33.33%.

Correction 6 February 2020

We corrected a typo in this article to clarify that we were referring to the UK's gini score in 2009/10.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.