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Six Things We Learned From The ITV Leaders Debate

6 min read

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer went head to head in the first leadership debate of the general election campaign on Tuesday night, with an hour of trading blows on live TV.

With the Conservatives trailing Labour by large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls, Sunak was seen as going into the debate under more pressure to perform strongly.

A snap survey from YouGov in the immediate aftermath of the debate suggested the leaders were almost neck and neck, with the Prime Minister every so slightly edging the Labour Party leader by 51 to 49 per cent.

PoliticsHome in partnership with Thinks Insight & Strategy asked 20 swing voters in five key electoral battlegrounds to follow tonight's debate and offer their reactions to it.

Using their responses, as well as our own analysis, here are six things we learned from tonight's head-to-head with just over four weeks to go until polling day on 4 July.

Under pressure Sunak goes on the attack 

The Prime Minister was on the offensive from the start, repeatedly accusing Labour of planning to increase taxes, and directly challenging Starmer on what he would do on certain policy issues such as immigration. 

Given the Tory party's position in the opinion polls, it should come as no surprise that Sunak took a combative approach to the debate. There were moments when the Prime Minister seemed like more of an opposition leader, challenging his opponent Starmer to explain how he would make Labour's plans work. 

Barry, a 2019 Tory voter in Bolton, was impressed by the PM's style. “Sunak has put direct questions Starmer’s way and every single time he hasn't answered," he told us.

Host Julie Etchingham had to step in at several moments when the debate got heated and the leaders continued to speak over one another and her. 

However, while Sunak's direct style earned some plaudits, some members of our swing voter group found Starmer to be more empathetic.

Gemma in Bolton said: "How Starmer apologised to the lady for being in financial difficulty straight at the start of his 45 seconds shows genuine behaviour. He wasted some of his seconds to that which shows he has more empathy towards to the people and that it’s not a competition."

Similarly, Neil in Swindon said: “It’s hard to connect with Sunak when he tries to be personal it feels superficial and robotic.” 

Starmer won’t let Sunak live Liz Truss down

The Labour leader brought up the former prime minister on a number of occasions in tonight's debate. In the very first question about the cost of living, Starmer claimed that the government has “lost control” and “Liz Truss crashed the economy.”

He added: “Liz Truss’ advisors are in the House of Lords, she’s going to be candidate at the next election, Rishi Sunak is putting her forward."

The cost of living is regularly citied as the top concern for voters at this election, and the former prime minister remains unpopular more than 18 months after she left office. 

The Labour Party feels there is an effective attack to be had in linking Sunak with his predecessor and the impact her shortlived stint in Downing Street had on the economy.

Sunak presses Starmer on tax rises

Sunak regularly repeated the line that Labour would increase taxes by £2,000, a figure based on costings revealed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt last month. The number is highly-contested, however, on the basis that it is based on the assumptions of political advisers, rather than truly independent officials.

Starmer eventually denied the figure, describing them as “garbage”. However, that the Labour didn't leader didn't immediately shoot it down will almost certainly form a big part of Tory attacks in the weeks between now and the general election.

Shadow minister Jon Ashworth was unequivocal in his dismissal of Sunak’s claims when speaking to journalists after the debate wrapped up. “What he was saying tonight about Labour’s plans was absolute garbage,” he said, adding “those assumptions they put in there were frankly embarrassing.” 

Members of the swing voters panel were unconvinced by Starmer’s response. 

Starmer

“I didn’t like how Starmer can’t answer the question about pension tax,” said Gemma in Bolton, while Rachel in Swindon said “I don’t like it that Keir isn’t denying increasing £2k taxes.” 

Snap polling from YouGov also suggested that this was an area where Sunak took the lead, with 53 per cent of people saying he performed better on the issue, compared to 32 per cent who said the same of Starmer. 

Both leaders would work with Trump if he was elected 

Sunak and Starmer were asked whether they would want to maintain the special relationship with “convicted criminal Donald Trump”.

Starmer said that if he is elected as president of the US in November “then we will deal with him”. 

“The special relationship transcends whoever fills the posts of Prime Minister and President because it’s such an important strong relationship,” he added. 

Sunak similarly said that “having a strong relationship with our closest partner and ally in the United States is critical for keeping everyone in our country safe".

That Trump is a highly controversial figure didn't stop the pair from making clear statements about their willingness to work with him. Both leaders are attempting to pitching themselves as strong leaders who can lead the country on the world stage at a time of international insecurity.

Starmer's immigration balancing act 

The Labour leader is highly critical of Sunak's policy of deporting illegal migrants to Rwanda, describing it as a "gimmick". So far, the plan has yet to result in a flight leaving for the African country, while thousands of people have arrived on the south coast this year.

However, when asked about how he would tackle small boats crossings, Starmer said that he would be supportive of processing asylum claims in a third country "if that was possible to do it in compliance with international law".

This illustrates that while Starmer is keen to highlight the Prime Minister's struggles to stop Channel crossings, he doesn't want to create the impression that he is soft on tackling the issue.

The pair try to out-NHS each other

Sunak and Starmer both made sure to mention their family connections to the health service. Starmer claimed that the health service “runs through my DNA”. His wife works for the NHS, as did his mum and sister.  

Sunak has similar connections to the health service, and told the audience that his Dad was a GP and mother was a pharmacist. 

Their response to a question on whether they would use private health care for a loved one was a clear dividing line, with Sunak unequivocally telling the audience that he would go private, while Starmer said he would not, repeating the line that the NHS is in his “DNA”.

The NHS is one of the most important issues for the electorate heading into the election, so it is no surprise that both men were keen to demonstrate that they understand its importance to voters and that they can be trusted to run it.


PoliticsHome has exclusive access to the Thinks Insight and Strategy Election Diaries 2024. Over the coming five weeks, 50 swing voters from five battleground constituencies across the UK will be sharing what they see and hear of the general election campaign, as well as what it means to them. There’ll be regular updates here and on the Thinks website, and the views of the diarists will feature across PoliticsHome’s coverage. You can read about the diaries in more detail here.

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