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TV Debate Stalemate Unlikely To Shift Election Dial

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arriving at the ITV debate on Tuesday (Alamy)

6 min read

Last night's TV debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer was unlikely to have shifted the dial significantly for the undecided electorate, suggest the responses from a panel of voters nationwide.

The two party leaders went head to head for an hour on ITV last night, in the first televised debate which covered everything from tax policy to immigration and the NHS. 

With the Conservatives trailing Labour by large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls just four weeks until the election, Sunak was under greater pressure to perform strongly. The PM was combative in his approach from the get go, repeatedly attacking Starmer on his plans for taxes and immigration. 

PoliticsHome is collaborating with Thinks Insight and Strategy over the course of the campaign, to gather a view on the contest from 50 panelists across five battleground constituencies across the country.  All of them voted for the Tories or the Scottish National Party in 2019, but are now planning to vote for other parties or are undecided how they will vote on 4 July.

No game changer

Overall, around 20 people shared their thoughts on the debate having watched the whole thing or seen highlights. Their responses suggest that the event is unlikely to have a significant impact on overall public sentiment. 

Alice, from Swindon South, did not watch the programme last night and “didn’t even hear that the debate was on,” but after catching up with highlights, thought it “amounted to nothing and did not provide any confidence for me personally".

Peter in Wokingham watched a summary on BBC News but “wasn’t particularly impressed with either individual".

The respondents on the panel were pretty evenly split on who “won” the debate.

Of the 14 who shared their views on who “won” the head-to-head, seven thought that Labour leader Starmer came out on top, while six thought Sunak did better and one could not decide. 

People who thought Starmer edged it felt that he empathised better with the audience members asking questions, while Sunak came across as “robotic” or out of touch. 

“I’d say Starmer won as his approach was more genuine," said Gemma in Bolton.

"If they were both at a party, I would say Starmer would be mixing with normal down to earth people and Rishi would be with the people of importance and money. I feel Rishi Sunak would have a whisky and Keir Starmer a pint.”

On the other hand, those who thought Sunak was strongest felt he gave more compelling answers than Starmer, who they felt tended to avoid questions. 

Fred in Wokingham, a Liberal Democrat target seat controlled by the Tories, thought that it “was pretty close in terms of who won” and that “Starmer missed an opportunity".

He explained, “when Sunak was talking about Rwanda he sounded awkward, but I don’t think Starmer offered a clear solution or a strong alternative."

Tom in Bolton West thought that the Labour leader won “just”. 

“Sunak’s wild mud slinging approach ran out of stream and Keir Starmer finished stronger.” 

However, Claire in Nuneaton, a seat many see as a bellwether constituency, thought that Sunak “had more substance in what he was saying” while Starmer “seems more defensive and less clear and precise” about what he plans to do.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer

The reaction of the Thinks Insight panalists mirrors what was seen in snap polling conducted overnight, where voters were pretty split on which politician they preferred. 

A YouGov poll published immediately following the debate on Tuesday night found people felt Sunak performed best by 51 per cent to 49 per cent. 

However, a Savanta poll published on Wednesday had Starmer as the victor by 44 per cent to Sunak’s 39 per cent, and JL Partners gave Starmer a 20 per cent lead on the question of who perfomed best (53 v 33 per cent).

The Tory tax attack landed, but doubts are already emerging

In the hour-long debate, Sunak regularly repeated a claim that Labour would increase taxes by £2,000 a figure based on costings revealed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt last month.

Starmer was slow to deny the claim, although in the second half of the debate did say the numbers are "garbage", a term that was repeated by shadow minister Jonathan Ashworth in his comments to media after the debate wrapped up. 

Shadow ministers and Labour candidates have today accused the Prime Minister of lying to the public about the claim.

The number was already highly-contested on the basis that it is based on the assumptions of political advisers, rather than truly independent officials. On Wednesday morning, the BBC shared a letter from the Treasury’s top civil servant to Labour, saying that the numbers “should not be presented as having been produced by the civil service.” 

According to the Thinks Insight analysis, the £2,000 figure was a line that did really stick with panelists throughout the debate, and a number noticed that Starmer did not immediately deny the claim. 

However, following this morning’s developments, it has been noticed that the figures are being questioned. 

“Starmer didn't really have any comeback on Sunak's constant allegation Labour would raise taxes by £2,000,” said Karen in Nuneaton, who said the debate “kind of reinforced doubts and fears about Labour being a high tax party".

Similarly, Reena in Wokingham was also concerned. “If Labour are going to increase taxes by a another £2,000 - and they aren’t denying they’re going to do that – what are we going to do?!” 

James in Nuneaton pointed to the additional reporting from the BBC, and noted that the estimations in the Conservatives’ numbers are “built on many worse case scenarios”. 

“For me it's about not being baffled by any of the headline numbers, they can always be skewed and manipulated,” he said. 

Three of the seats where the participants of the Thinks Insight panel are based are controlled by the Tories and are targets for Labour. They are Nuneaton, Bolton West, and Swindon South. 

One, Wokingham, is controlled by the Conservatives and is in the sights of Ed Davey's Liberal Democrats. The fifth, Airdrie and Shotts, is a Scottish National Party seat which Labour hopes to win.

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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