Sunak and Starmer trade blows in opening election debate

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer went head-to-head in the first of a series of leaders debates on Tuesday.

The hugely anticipated night was set against the backdrop of the opposition enjoying significant leads in the polls and recent MRP polling predicting a landslide Labour victory that could see the Conservative Party potentially decimated at the ballot box.

Julie Etchingham hosted ITV’s hour-long debate which proved to be as fiercely contested as was expected from the two party leaders vying to be the next Prime Minister.

Throughout the debate, the leaders were quizzed on their respective plans for the country’s economy, healthcare system, immigration challenges and national security.

What became clear within the opening moments of this debate is that Sunak and Starmer would attack each other on two clear lines. Sunak on the Labour Party’s plans for ‘tax rises’ and Starmer on the Government’s record in power.

With the Prime Minister on the backfoot in the polls, he came out swinging on the Labour Party’s plans to raise taxes, which he stated would cost taxpayers £2,000.

At times, this felt repetitive, however, Starmer was unable to articulate a coherent rebuttal to the claims and the Prime Minister and his advisers will have felt that he was able to make significant headway in establishing a narrative that a Labour Government would cost taxpayers.

In response, Sir Keir Starmer relentlessly probed the Prime Minister on his record in Government and the Conservative Party’s record over the last 14 years. Invoking his party’s message of “Change”, his attempt to position himself as a Prime Minister that would steer the country in a different course resonated with the audience as he drew applause on NHS waiting lists and tackling criminal gangs associated with illegal immigration.

At times the debate became confrontational, with the Prime Minister appearing more willing to trade blows with Starmer on the future of the country and the Labour Party’s alleged inability to form a coherent plan for a nation facing a cost-of-living crisis and geopolitical challenges.

While the two leaders were diametrically opposed on issues such as private healthcare and education, alongside the European Court of Human Rights, they were both aligned on their willingness to invoke their own personal story.

Sunak and Starmer regularly reference their parents’ occupations to highlight how they are in touch with the public, and the debate was no different, with both suggesting their upbringing provided them with a sense of loyalty towards the future of the NHS.

More broadly, the hostility of the debate may have been a turn off for the public. The format only allowed for 45 second responses from Sunak and Starmer which often resulted in the host, Julie Etchingham rightfully having to regularly shut down responses before either had got going. Similarly, Sunak and Starmer regularly spoke over each other, often descending into frenzy, with social media users highlighting the futility of the format.

While much anticipated, the opening election debate likely reinforced what the public already knew than perhaps what the leaders wanted us to. Rishi Sunak required a major victory to make an impact on polling numbers and despite a snap poll showing he snuck a narrow victory on the night among the public, it will take an impactful campaign to move the needle as far as it needs to.

As we look towards the campaign developing and further televised debates, Keir Starmer will be keen to curate an effective response to the Prime Minister’s attack line regarding potential tax rises.

A letter penned by the Treasury Permanent Secretary cast doubt on the Tories’ claims that a Labour Government would cost the taxpayer £2,000 was revealed shortly after and this goes someway to formulating this response.

Likewise, the Prime Minister will hope to continue probing the Labour Party on its plans for the future and sharpen up attack lines relating to the economy, spending commitments and attacks.

The election campaign is now well and truly underway and the broad themes the main party want to portray are still evident. Labour will campaign on a message of “change”, alleging that after 14 years of Conservative rule, the country is no better off than it was before.

While the Government will continue to push a message that the Labour Party has no plan for the country and what plans it does have will come at a cost to the taxpayer.

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