Signs robotic Starmer’s honeymoon may be brief if he wins – as Sunak fails to seize moment at Sky News Grimsby event


Whether it was the audience reaction, the overwhelming verdict in a snap poll or simply the crestfallen look of the PM as he battled to defend his record, it was clear which of the two leaders had the more challenging time on Wednesday night.

The Battle for Number 10 rigorously ran the rule over Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak, with questions from a 100-strong Grimsby audience and a meticulous interview with political editor Beth Rigby.

It is the mid-point of the general election campaign, so the Sky News special programme came at a pivotal moment.

We saw a Labour leader trained to give as little away as possible – sticking to a script on tax which will allow for unadvertised post-election tax rises that the safety-first campaign will not take the risk of spelling out now.

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Whether it was fuel duty, council tax and capital gains tax, each the Labour leader said he has no plans to raise.

We also saw a Labour leader being forced to concede he has abandoned pledges and change position when he believes the moment demands, meaning real questions remain about exactly what will happen if – as seems likely – Keir Starmer enters Number 10 with a bombproof majority.

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Starmer was questioned by the audience over likeability and whether he was too much of a robot – only to deliver a robotic answer.

If he makes it to power, there are signs from today’s encounter his honeymoon may be brief.

Sir Keir Starmer leaders' debate
Sir Keir Starmer on stage being questioned by Sky News’ Beth Rigby and a 100-strong Grimsby audience

Sunak was questioned as part of Sky's leaders' event in Grimsby.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak battled to turn around his campaign at the event in Grimsby

But the night mattered much more for Rishi Sunak, after a rocky campaign which caught his party and the country by surprise, he needed a transformative win.

It didn’t appear to come.

The area that Sunak came unstuck on was his own record. His struggles to explain his own record when challenged by the facts was picked up by the audience.

He appeared to redefine his pledge to bring down debt, saying it was always intended to come down in five years.

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His attempt to put the blame on rising waiting lists on the junior doctors was booed, while the claim they were going down, when overall in his premiership they are rising, was challenged robustly.

The audience was aghast at the scale of immigration rises, while clapped at the idea Sunak had called the election before allowing the Rwanda policy to be tested.

Sunak looked in turn wounded and bristled at the lines of questioning. But the audience knew what they were looking for – disinterested in a PM sidestepping the questions they wanted answered.

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Inside Sky’s special leaders’ event

The polling verdict was brutal – 64 to 36 thought Starmer won over Sunak, while one in three 2019 Tory voters, who backed Boris Johnson, thought the Labour leader was better.

This was a big moment for Sunak, but he didn’t seize it. Are there many more opportunities?

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