Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer clashed for a final time on Wednesday in a fiery end to the televised election debates. Predictably, there were few surprises on policy at this late stage, with each leader sticking to the line we have seen them develop over the last few weeks. Whilst the Labour leader reiterated the need for ‘change’, the Prime Minister reminded viewers that his opponent often ‘changes his mind’.

 

Energy and Infrastructure

Sunak brought up a leaked audio of Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Darren Jones, telling an audience in Bristol earlier this year that net zero would cost ‘hundreds of billions of pounds’. Starmer brushed the charge off, claiming that his fiscal plans were fully funded and that he would ‘get investors to come alongside that government money’. The debate was light on energy, infrastructure, and planning detail. Instead, the audience questioned the leaders’ personalities, ability to restore trust in politics, and the more polarising issues of welfare claimants, immigration, and transgender rights.

 

A change of tone

This allowed both leaders to pursue a more aggressive tone and rhetoric than we have been unaccustomed to in a campaign frequently described by media pundits as ‘boring’. The Prime Minister was first to ramp up the heat, telling Starmer directly: ‘you’re not being straight with people’ and ‘you have got no plan’. In a new move, Sunak urged voters not to ‘surrender’ Britain’s borders to a lax immigration policy or their taxes to unfunded benefits. The militaristic metaphor might work well to rouse morale among disillusioned Tory voters, but involved the tacit admission that defeat looms over the Conservative campaign.

On the whole, Starmer spoke directly to the audience rather than his opponent, referring to his record on public service and pointing to 14 years of Conservative failure. However, in a rare attack on his rival’s personal character, Starmer told the Prime Minister: ‘if you listened to people across the country, you might not be so out of touch’. Elsewhere in the debate, Starmer’s attempt to portray Sunak as ‘Liz Truss Mark II’ comments probably failed to land with an audience for whom the Conservative Leadership Election is already a distant memory.

 

Leadership

Perhaps the most memorable question came from Robert Blackstock. Calling Sunak ‘mediocre’ and accusing Starmer of being pulled by the strings of senior figures within the Labour Party, he asked: “Are you two really the best we’ve got to be the next prime minister of our great country?” Both leaders reached for no familiar lines about their background and plans for government – perhaps failing to display the personality and charisma which the question implied was lacking.

 

Europe

The leaders were also asked about their views on Britain’s relationship with the European Union, an issue which the two main parties have hitherto been notably quiet. Sunak brought the question back to his plans to help small businesses, whilst Starmer’s claim to be able to get a better deal than Boris ‘botched’ and Sunak has delivered was light on detail. Whilst Starmer called the Prime Minister a ‘defeatist’, he failed to answer Sunak’s question as to how a better deal could be negotiated. Likewise, on sending illegal immigrants back to Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan, Sunak asked: “Is he going to sit down with the Iranian Ayatollah? Are you going to try and do a deal with the Taliban? It’s completely nonsensical. You are taking people for fools.”

 

Women’s issues.

On the question as to whether the leaders would ‘put women’s interest first’, Starmer celebrated the women on his ‘team’, a word he reached for eight times in the course of championing the talents and backgrounds of Rachel Reeves, Angela Rayner, Bridget Phillipson and Yvette Cooper. Sunak, on the other hand, could list a range of policies on HRT, maternity care, free childcare, and his vision for an equal playing field in the workplace, linking each idea to the future he wants for his two daughters.

 

But who won?

The polls and pundits suggest that it was Sunak who won the debate, the Prime Minister’s feisty ‘gloves off’ approach winning him favour with an audience hungry to see personalities collide. But will it make any difference? YouGov tweeted this morning that attitudes towards the Tory party are at their most negative since tracking began in 2016. Sunak has a mountain to climb to win back the trust of the public, and he will need more than a few rhetorical cudgels to beat back Labour’s lead.

 

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