UK election debate: what are Sunak’s and Starmer’s attack lines likely to be?

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will go head to head for the first time in this election campaign on Tuesday. Both leaders have spent hours preparing for the hour-long ITV debate, which will kick off at 9pm and is being moderated by Julie Etchingham.

TV debates are a recent feature of UK elections. The first one took place in 2010 and was a breakthrough moment for Nick Clegg, with the Liberal Democrats shooting up by 14 percentage points in the polls the next day.

Subsequent party leaders have agonised over the benefits and drawbacks of participating. The frontrunner tends to have the most to lose – but bowing out of debates can also be damaging, as Theresa May discovered in 2017.

Julia Etchingham on set at MediaCity in Salford during preparations for the debate on Tuesday. Photograph: Getty Images

Sunak, whose party is languishing 20 points behind in the polls, has challenged Starmer to debate him every week of this election campaign. The Labour leader has agreed to take part in two debates, saying: “I can do one debate or 100, I know what Sunak is going to say.”

The government’s record

Keir Starmer: The Labour leader will put Sunak under pressure over the Conservatives’ record after 14 years in power, attacking their management of the economy and the NHS. Polling suggests that Labour is now more trusted in both those areas – which top voters’ list of concerns.

Rishi Sunak: The prime minister will in turn try to move the focus off the Tories’ record, accusing Starmer of harking back to the past and seeking power while lacking any agenda for government. In recent weeks he has sought to announce eye-catching policies to demonstrate his party has energy and fresh ideas.

Personal attacks

Sunak: Week after week at prime minister’s questions, Sunak pointed out that Starmer once represented the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in his legal work. It is part of a broader Tory attack on the Labour leader’s record as a human rights lawyer and later director of public prosecutions.

Starmer: This week Labour has returned fire on Sunak by saying he has questions to answer about the fortune he earned at TCI, a hedge fund that engineered a deal at the heart of the 2008 financial crash. Starmer may choose to deploy this attack during the debate.

Immigration

Sunak: Under the Conservatives, legal immigration has soared and small boats have continued to cross the Channel even as the government spent millions on a (so far) unsuccessful scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Sunak has staked the future of the Rwanda scheme on this election, pointing out that no flight will take off if Labour wins. He is likely to accuse Starmer of lacking a plan to stop the boats.

Starmer: Labour tends to be more comfortable talking about the NHS and cost of living – but polling suggests it is now more trusted to handle the issue of immigration and asylum than the Conservatives. Starmer is likely to hammer the Tory record and point to his pledge, unveiled this weekend, to cut net migration by an unspecified amount if he becomes prime minister.

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Defence and security

Sunak: The prime minister has put global insecurity at the heart of his campaign by announcing mandatory national service for 18-year-olds (though only a small number would actually complete this in the military). Defence is one area in which the Conservatives still retain a slight poll lead over Labour, and they are eager to reiterate to voters that Starmer once campaigned to put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street.

Starmer: The Labour leader has sought to burnish his defence credentials this week by announcing a so-called “triple lock” on retaining the UK’s nuclear weapons arsenal. A few weeks ago he became the first Labour leader in 30 years to visit Barrow-in-Furness, where the new Dreadnought boats will be built. He may attack Sunak for cutting the army down to its smallest size since the Napoleonic era.

Gender and culture wars

Sunak: The Conservatives have sought to play into the culture wars by drawing dividing lines over trans rights during this campaign. Their official X account posted on Monday that “we know what a woman is. Keir Starmer doesn’t”, hours after the party unveiled plans to rewrite the Equality Act. Sunak may try to deploy this sort of attack at the debate as he casts around for ways to dent Starmer’s poll lead (although it’s a tactic that has backfired in the past).

Starmer: The Labour leader’s team are comfortable with their position on trans rights, which has evolved during his leadership. Starmer is likely to respond to any culture war-style attacks by arguing that the Conservatives are failing to talk about voters’ priorities: the NHS and the cost of living.

The Guardian