With just four weeks to go until the country goes to the polls, the leaders of the UK’s two main parties locked horns in the first head-head debate. 

The debate was centred around the issues that polling suggests are the core issues for voters, namely; the economy, the NHS and immigration. Labour leader Keir Starmer sought to attack the Conservative government record, whilst Rishi Sunak sought to project his party as the safe option – for both the economy and national security. 

 

A Fiery Exchange  

For millions, this was a first opportunity to see the two party leaders battle it out on their TV screens, and was punctuated by several moments in which the argument boiled over, as both leaders spoke over one another and their moderator. 

For Sunak, the aim was to convey a message that the economy was safe under the Conservatives, that the economy was growing and that a future Conservative government would cut taxes and invest in the NHS and schools to continue to deliver prosperity. His message was that an incoming Labour government would put economic progress at risk, and raise taxes, citing a report that he said showed Labour policies would cost households £2,000 each in total. This statistic was repeated several times during the debate, but its veracity was challenged. 

Following the debate, Sir Keir accused Sunak of breaking the ministerial code for lying to the country in making the £2,000 tax claim. Sunak faces a further headache, as James Bowler, chief Treasury civil servant, wrote to Labour Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Darren Jones, clarifying that Sunak’s assessment of Labour’s tax plans in this instance shouldn’t “be presented as having been produced by the civil service.” 

Sir Keir Starmer outlined what he viewed as 14 years of ‘Conservative chaos’, focusing specifically on the 49-day premiership of Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, and the negative impact of her administration’s mini-budget in September 2022. Following the pandemic and the mini-budget shock, Starmer claimed the Conservatives had already presided over a tax burden at its highest level in 75 years. 

 

Climate, environment and energy policy 

In keeping with the campaign so far, climate change and the environment were not top of the agenda. However, there was a short segment that saw the leaders pressed on this issue. Sunak spoke to the concerns his own daughters had about climate change, but added that bold decisions had to be taken to ensure greater energy security and lower energy bills. He attempted to sting Starmer with a claim that Labour would effectively ban North Sea energy, including oil and gas extraction, and that bills would be higher under a Labour government. He also suggested that Labour would mandate households to switch to hydrogen boilers and heat pumps, which he suggested would equate to a cost of up to £7,000. 

Starmer framed this as an opportunity to present Labour’s proposal for Great British Energy, a publicly-owned energy company which he claimed would generate profits to be invested back into public services, provide energy security and lead to a reduction in energy bills. The Conservatives, on the other hand, he claimed, by slowing down their climate change plans, would cost the taxpayer more money than under a Labour government by 2030. 

 

Poll Watch 

A flash poll by YouGov after the debate found voters believing Sunak narrowly won the debate by 51% to Sir Keir Starmer’s 49%.  Subsequent polls by Savanta and JL Partners gave Starmer a victory. The overall feeling is the debate wasn’t enough to shift the dial, with voting intention polls from across the UK’s polling companies presenting a consistent message: Labour leads the Conservatives by roughly 20 points, and this would potentially be enough to deliver a Labour landslide victory on 4th July. 

The election campaign is expected to see further such debates in the coming weeks, with both Sunak and Starmer hoping their respective views will cut through with the electorate. Moving forwards, it’s possible to see the Conservatives intend to use tax and immigration to appeal to voters, whereas Labour will be seeking to criticise the government’s record and making the argument for a change in government. 

A week is a long time in politics, and anything can happen. Just imagine what could happen over the next four.