Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clashed over their rival plans for Brexit in a series of heated exchanges in the first televised debate of the General Election.
The Labour leader dismissed the Prime Minister’s pledge to “get Brexit done” by the end of January as “nonsense” while Mr Johnson suggested his rival was “not fit to lead our country”.
He accused the Government of entering into secret talks with the US to open up the NHS to American pharmaceutical companies in a future trade deal.
But Mr Johnson hit back, denouncing the claims as “an absolute invention”, insisting there were “no circumstances whatsoever” in which a Conservative government would put the NHS “on the table” in trade talks.
He said the Labour leader was trying to disguise the “void” at the heart of his Brexit policy which meant he was unable to say which way he would vote in Labour’s planned second referendum.
He accused Mr Corbyn of being prepared to strike a deal with Nicola Sturgeon to enter No 10 at the price of a second referendum on Scottish independence.
“Mr Corbyn, you’ve heard tonight, cannot answer the fundamental questions. Is he for Remain or Leave and what price would he pay to secure Nicola Sturgeon’s support to enter Number 10?
“If he can’t answer those questions tonight, I don’t think he’s fit to lead our country.”
Following the debate – hosted by ITV – a snap poll by YouGov of 1,646 viewers suggested a virtual tie with 51% saying they thought Mr Johnson had won as against 49% who thought Mr Corbyn came out on top.
Mr Corbyn rejected Mr Johnson’s claim that he was seeking an alliance with the SNP, saying: “There are no deals that have been done and there will be no deals that are done.”
The Labour leader was the first to go on the offensive in the debate, dismissing Mr Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” by the end of January.
He said the Prime Minister was trying to negotiate a trade deal with the US – which would take at least seven years – while at the same time claiming he could get a special deal with the EU when the two were “actually incompatible”.
“You are not going to get it done in a few months and you know that perfectly well,” he told the Prime Minister.
He then went on to accuse the Mr Johnson of conducting secret trade talks with the US, brandishing papers which he said had been released under Freedom of Information with large sections blacked out.
“What we know of what Mr Johnson has done is a series of secret meetings with the United States in which they were proposing to open up our NHS markets as they call them to American companies,” he said.
Mr Johnson retorted: “This is an absolute invention. It is completely untrue. There are no circumstances whatever in which this Government or any Conservative government will put the NHS on the table in any trade negotiation.”
He said there was “ample time” to get a trade deal with the EU as they were already “in a state of perfect alignment both for tariffs and for quotas”.
Mr Johnson also insisted that he was fully committed to the NHS after the Labour leader raised the case of a friend who had died of secondary breast cancer on Monday after waiting eight hours for treatment.
He said the health service was “one of the single most beautiful and brilliant things” about Britain, adding that nothing could be more ruinous for it than Labour’s “crackpot plan” for a four day week.
Mr Johnson went on the offensive over what he said was Mr Corbyn’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.
“It’s a complete failure of leadership what’s happened with anti-Semitism, but the failure of leadership is even worse when you look at what is happening on their Brexit policy,” he told him.
Mr Corbyn said anti-Semitism was “an absolute evil and scourge within our society” and insisted the party treated the issue “very, very seriously”.
He said the country was facing “a once-in-a-generation election to end privatisation and give the National Health Service the funding it needs. To give people the final say and get Brexit sorted.”
There was a final moment of humour at the end when the two contenders were asked what they would give each other for Christmas
Mr Corbyn said he would give the Tory leader A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens so he could “understand how nasty Scrooge was”.
Mr Johnson initially suggested he would give his rival “a copy of my brilliant Brexit deal”, before settling for a pot of damson jam.
Following the debate, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson – whose party unsuccessfully challenged her exclusion in the High Court – said it had been a contest between two “tired old parties”.
“People at home would be forgiven for saying we deserve better than this. Clearly both men believe in Brexit. The voice of Remain was not there,” she said.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said: “The clear takeaway for Scotland from this debate is that neither of these men should be able to determine Scotland’s future.”
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage added Mr Corbyn is a “better debater” but said it was a “failure of leadership” that he did not answer how he would vote in a second referendum.