‘Spineless’ Starmer accused of dodging weekly election TV debates


Rishi Sunak and senior Tories have sparked the first major row of the election campaign by accusing “spineless” Sir Keir Starmer of “chickening out” of weekly TV debates.

The prime minister has challenged the Labour leader to take part in six TV clashes during the campaign debating issues like tax, the cost of living and security.

But Labour’s high command has hit back, claiming Sir Keir‘s priority is spending time on the road talking to voters, and revealed that he will take part in two TV debates with the PM.

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Realistically, TV schedules in June and early July are packed with the group stages and knock-out matches in the Euro 2024 football tournament – with England the favourites – meaning six election debates are highly unlikely.

But undaunted by a football and politics clash, Mr Sunak threw down his challenge to the Labour leader in an article from The Daily Telegraph in which he declared: “There are big issues at stake in this election.

“Do we continue cutting taxes or raise taxes on working households as Labour would do?

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“Do we prioritise energy security and your family’s finances in our approach to net zero or put environmental dogma first as Sir Keir Starmer and Ed Miliband would?

“And, above all, how do we give this country the secure future it deserves?”

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Mr Sunak added: “I want to debate these issues with Sir Keir Starmer. But he doesn’t want to because he doesn’t have a plan and doesn’t have the courage to say what he wants to do.”

Using tougher language, Tory chairman Richard Holden turned up the heat on Sir Keir, telling the Daily Express: “It’s no surprise spineless Sir Keir Starmer is chickening out of debates that he publicly promised to do just months ago.

“It’s time for Sir Keir to grow a backbone. The public deserves to hear and scrutinise what the man who wants to be our prime minister has to say before he changes his mind, again.”

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Back in January, Sir Keir said on TV election debates: “I have been saying bring it on for a very, very long time. I’m happy to debate at any time.”

And rejecting the Tory claims of a U-turn, Labour sources told Sky News Sir Keir will speak to voters and take questions from media throughout the election campaign.

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“Labour believes spending time on the road talking to voters across the country is the priority and so Keir Starmer is planning to take part in the two debates with the largest audience: BBC and ITV,” said a senior party source.

“We won’t be tearing up the format established in previous elections just to suit this week’s whims of the Tory party.”

Sky News election debate in 2010
Sky News election debate in 2010

TV election debates took off in the UK in the 2010 general election when Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg took part in three debates, on ITV, Sky News and the BBC.

It was claimed they were responsible for the “Cleggmania” that eventually led to Mr Clegg becoming deputy prime minister in Mr Cameron’s coalition government.

During the debates, the phrase “I agree with Nick”, used frequently by Mr Cameron and Mr Brown, became a catchphrase successfully deployed by the Liberal Democrats during the election campaign.

At the last general election, in 2019, there were two debates between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn and it seems likely there will be two again in this campaign.

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