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Why Keir Starmer Has Everything To Lose From TV Debates

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak in parliament. (Alamy)

6 min read

TV debates can change the game in a general election. With Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer up 20 points in the opinion polls, he has everything to lose.

Seeking to ramp up pressure on day one of the campaign, the Prime Minister challenged Starmer to a record six, weekly head-to-head election debates, accusing Labour of running scared. A spokesperson from CCHQ tells PoliticsHome: “The Prime Minister is willing to debate the Labour leader every week of the campaign.”

But six head-to-heads are highly unlikely. Not only are the TV schedules already packed with summer sporting events and festival broadcasts, but it works in Starmer’s favour to do as few as possible.

“If you're Rishi Sunak, you're out there, going  ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ and if you're Keir Starmer you put a bit of dampener on it”, says Craig Oliver, former No 10 director of communications to David Cameron.

“From Labour's point of view, given that they're ahead, leadership debates will feel like a distraction and the chance for surprises or unexpected things – for drama. I suspect that's why the Tories want them: they're hoping that something goes wrong”, explains Theo Bertram, director of the Social Market Foundation and former No 10 special advisor to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Craig Oliver adds: “It's just up to how much the Labour Party feels they can get away with not doing stuff”.

Labour officials have confirmed they will only commit to two televised TV debates with the BBC and with ITV. A source from ITV reveals No 10 are pushing for the debate to take place as soon as next week, indicating Sunak is keen to kick off the head-to-heads as quickly as possible.

Starmer has agreed to take part in a Sky News leaders special in Grimsby, with Beth Rigby set to host on June 11 or 12. It’s unclear at this stage if it will include any of the other party leaders as negotiations with Sunak are still ongoing.

There is a possibility that the smaller parties are pushed out of the TV debates altogether, with reports that the BBC is set to follow ITV’s lead in excluding them. This would be good news for Starmer, particularly when it comes to discussion of issues like the Israel-Gaza war; but Sunak would likely be grateful for Reform UK to have less of a platform to outflank him on the right.

A Reform Party spokesperson says excluding other party leaders from the debates would be a “democratic outrage”.

 “This is clearly the Tories trying to salt the ground to try and make it a question of them versus Labour and it isn’t anymore. It’s dishonest and disreputable.”

The Lib Dems have been particularly quiet over whether they will take part in the tv debates, still cautious after their decision in 2019 to take ITV to court for excluding their previous leader Jo Swinson from the debate. The legal challenge failed.

A spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats says: “This election won’t be won or lost in some narrow debate – it’ll be up to voters across the country.”

Gordon BrownAlthough there is no formal process for how election TV debates work they have been a consistent feature of general elections since 2010. The only exception was in 2017 when then-prime minister Theresa May ducked out, sending Amber Rudd in her place. However, she later admitted regret over not taking part.

 “We shouldn't be in this process where we're trying to sort it out on the hoof”, says Bertram. “It would be much better to have this discussion outside of a contest period.”

He argues that instead of the current ad-hoc system, there should be a formal process for how the election tv debates are run. “In 2010 we did think we should set it up as a more formal committee, and we just ran out of time. I always regret that.”

With no official process, each political party advocates for whatever set up will give them the biggest advantage. “In 2010 that’s why we were insistent that there should be an economic debate because we felt that was where Gordon [Brown] would be stronger. We wanted there to be a Europe debate because we thought that's where [David] Cameron would be weaker”, reveals Bertram.

In 2010 it was Bertram who helped then-prime minister Brown prepare for the first ever televised election debates. He recalls: “It really dominated the campaign, it essentially became you are either preparing for a leadership debate, or just finishing one and then recovering from it.”

He adds: “Just how much effort and how exhausting it is mentally and physically is not to be underestimated. I think all the parties learned that gradually. We exhausted Gordon in the first campaign.”

“The only thing anybody really remembered about [the debate] is Ed Miliband nearly fell off the stage.”

Similarly, in 2015 David Cameron signed up to three election debates, including one head-to-head. “I remember David Cameron felt that he was locked in prep or a television studio a lot of the time when he felt he should be out in the country”, recalls Oliver. He adds, “The only thing anybody really remembered about [the debate] is Ed Miliband nearly fell off the stage.”

But from the get-go the debates proved powerful, changing the game overnight for the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg stole the show from political heavyweights Gordon Brown and David Cameron, briefly driving on the “yellow surge” known as Cleggmania.

“Nick Clegg was able to nip in from the sidelines and grab a huge amount of attention and destabilize the campaign”, explains Craig Oliver.

If a party leader manages to hijack the debate and deliver a great sound bite then they’ve succeeded. Oliver recalls a moment during the 2015 party leaders debate where Cameron did just that.

“We had worked out that every one of the party leaders wanted to raise taxes, except David Cameron. And so we said, at one moment, you just need to grab hold of the debate and say ‘the thing everybody's got to realise is they want to raise your taxes, they want to raise your taxes’ and point to every single one of them. Sure enough, it was a dramatic moment.”

“Even more than PMQs, it really is a theatrical performance”, explains Burtram.

So how will Starmer fare against Sunak?

“They’ve both got their rehearsed lines, I don't think either of them are as good at the sort of performance as, say, William Hague or Tony Blair. So, I suspect it won't be the most enlightening or entertaining evening”, says Bertram.

Oliver agrees: “Neither of these guys have proven themselves to be terribly exciting. It's hard not to see it as being a bit of a letdown.”

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