PM came out fighting and just about shaded debate – but it probably won’t win election

Politics

Behind in the polls, Rishi Sunak needed to come out fighting and take the gloves off in the first TV leaders’ debate.

And he did. He was aggressive, repeatedly challenging Sir Keir Starmer, particularly on tax, placing the Labour leader on the defensive.

Election latest: Voters think Rishi Sunak beat Keir Starmer in first TV debate, snap poll finds

The YouGov snap poll scored it at 51% for the prime minister and 49% for Sir Keir Starmer and that’s about right.

The prime minister probably just about shaded it. But Sir Keir needs to raise his game and match Mr Sunak’s fire with fire in the second debate later this month.

Mr Sunak stuck to a simple message on tax rises under Labour. Starmer repeatedly hammered Sunak on the Tories’ record over the past 14 years.

From the start, the prime minister went on the attack and rammed home his message accusing Labour of planning £2,000 tax rises.

He did it over and over again. Simple message: Labour will put up taxes, even for pensioners. It was crude, but effective.

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First leaders’ debate – what happened?

The debate was almost over by the time Sir Keir finally dismissed the tax claim as “garbage” and for much of the debate the Labour leader was forced to react defensively rather than go on the attack himself.

This was raw politics. Yet vegetarian Rishi Sunak was the leader who sounded as though he’d been devouring red meat before the contest. Gorilla biscuits, even.

The Labour leader, a former director of public prosecutions (and how he reminded us of that fact repeatedly), is more used to addressing judges or juries. But not so much a TV audience.

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YouGov poll suggests Sunak won first election debate

This was the bear pit of politics, far less suited to the Labour leader’s lawyerly approach than facing Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

Presenter Julie Etchingham was brilliant throughout, particularly when the two leaders were shouting over each other. When Sir Lindsay Hoyle tires of keeping order in the Commons she’d make an excellent Speaker!

The prime minister appeared to have learned from his debates with Liz Truss for the Tory leadership. Then he was the measured, responsible one while she made the wild claims.

But she won then, because the Tory audience didn’t care.

Read more:
Panic will spread through Tory ranks after stunning poll
Poll suggests PM came out on top in first debate
Farage has milkshake thrown over him

Rishi Sunak during the ITV General Election debate at MediaCity in Salford.
Pic:ITV/PA
Image:
Pic: ITV/PA

This time it was Sunak throwing accusations around, not just on tax, but on terrorism and defence as well. “Insulting!” complained Sir Keir, but somewhat weakly and also too late.

At times in the first half of the one-hour debate, Sir Keir appeared slow and ponderous. He did better on the NHS than he did on tax, raising a laugh on NHS waiting lists by declaring: “You’re the guy who’s supposed to be good at maths.”

And Sir Keir did surprisingly well when he spelled out Labour’s controversial policy for VAT on private schools and then predictably did well on the plan to tax non-doms.

But he struggled again when the prime minister accused Labour of planning to tax state pensions.

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer during the ITV General Election debate at MediaCity in Salford.
Pic: ITV/PA
Image:
Pic: ITV/PA

Perhaps surprisingly, though, honours were even on immigration, with Sunak not getting applause for his stop the boats policy, although he then recovered by claiming: “You might not like it, but I’ve got a plan.”

He then put Sir Keir on the defensive again by challenging him: “What would you do with illegal immigrants who come to our country?”

They clashed again on defence and security, with the prime minister aggressive and on the attack again.

But even during that exchange the prime minister came back with his tax attack: “As clear as night follows day, he is going to put up your taxes.”


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Starmer won audience support for ridiculing the prime minister’s “teenage Dad’s Army”, but Mr Sunak concluded with the line: “In uncertain times we simply can’t afford an uncertain prime minister.”

That was the sort of argument Gordon Brown used against David Cameron in the general election campaign of 2010. That didn’t work for Mr Brown then.

And unless there’s an almighty turnaround in the opinion polls, despite all his aggression and coming out fighting with the glove off, it probably won’t work for Mr Sunak in 2024.

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