Starmer v Sunak: who came out top in the first leaders’ debate? Our panel’s verdict

Nesrine Malik: A short-form slugfest to show who is the harder man on immigration

Nesrine Malik

The debate format was poorly thought out. How can anything of substance be said in 45-second answers? On the questions that required longer responses – taxation, the cost of living crisis – there just wasn’t enough time to get into any detail. But on immigration, the brevity was grimly revealing.

Forced to condense their approach on the issue to short pitches, Sunak and Starmer gave a performance in how dishonesty about immigration has become normalised because all that matters is who can look “harder”. And so we are finally through the looking glass, as a Labour leader attacks a Tory prime minister, from the right. Starmer called Sunak “the most liberal prime minister we’ve ever had on immigration”. A charge that Starmer thinks is deadly precisely because what “immigration” is isn’t contextualised and broken down. It’s all one bad thing; a matter not of economics and the employment needs of the country, or even of compassion, but liberalism, now a dirty word that can be hurled like a slur.

“Ten thousand” people have crossed on boats this past year, Starmer said, stressing the number as if it were 10m. Never mind that all irregular arrivals to the UK last year accounted for less than 5% of all immigration to the country.

Sunak was going to “put them on planes”, what is Starmer going to do? Not to be outdone, Starmer says that he is entirely open to sending them to a third country in accordance with international law. Otherwise, he would be open to Sunak’s allegation that he would have them “on the streets”. That international law that Starmer wants to observe abroad also enshrines the right to asylum at home, a point that I guarantee you will never hear from these two over the next few weeks. That brief display of competitive ruthlessness encapsulated the entire debate – few facts, a lot of posturing, no winners.

Katy Balls: Rishi Sunak’s supporters will be pleased with his performance, but the real worry is Farage on Friday

Katy Balls

After a tricky start to the week that saw Nigel Farage announce a comeback and an MRP poll suggest the Tories could be left with just 140 seats, Rishi Sunak needed a decent performance in Tuesday’s election debate. He achieved this – with a YouGov snap poll putting him narrowly ahead as the winner at 51% to Keir Starmer on 49%. The relief among Sunak’s inner circle was palpable in the hours after the debate. As one key Sunak aide put it to me: “We needed that”. They believe Sunak landed key points against Starmer on tax and immigration.

Even some of Sunak’s usual critics within the Tory party found praise for his performance in the first head-to-head of the election. “He was quick-footed and took the fight to Labour – finally,” said a former government adviser. While Starmer won several rounds of applause in the hour-long bout, the Tories were delighted by the Labour leader’s delayed response in hitting back against Sunak’s claims that a Labour government would lead to £2000 of tax rises for UK households. Even some Labour aides expressed light frustration. “He [Keir] did well – but I wish he’d gone harder on the tax attack,” said one party figure on Tuesday night.

It means the debate ought to buy Sunak a little breathing space with his anxious party after a rough few days in the campaign. However, the main factors of the election have not changed: the Tories are trailing behind Labour in the polls and – as things stand – on course for a historic defeat. The return of Farage as leader of the Reform party means Tory candidates now fret that the polls could actually get worse in the coming weeks. It’s why any celebrations over the ITV debate will be short-lived. On Friday, Farage will take part in the seven-party debate alongside Angela Rayner for Labour and Penny Mordaunt for the Tories. If Farage steals the show, that debate could have as much significance for the Tories as last night’s.

Owen Jones: A failure to come to grips with the situation in Gaza; and waffling on the tough question of budget cuts

Owen Jones

For those who believe in the sanctity of human life, the Gaza segment of the debate was the bleakest moment. A question about the “awful scenes in Gaza” was reframed by ITV moderator Julie Etchingham as “about the Hamas terrorist atrocities of 7 October and then what unfolded after.” The violence against Israeli civilians was rightly named: but Israel’s western-backed violence against far more Palestinian civilians was erased, their lives stripped, as ever, of meaning.

Rishi Sunak’s only praise for Keir Starmer of the evening: applauding him for standing behind the Conservatives on “Israel’s right to self-defence”, which, in practice, has proved to be an unfolding genocide involving carpet bombing, tens of thousands slaughtered, and starvation. Can our democracy really not interrogate the two parties of government for backing an onslaught that has led to the international criminal court’s chief prosecutor issuing requests for arrest warrants? Really?

Starmer and Sunak should have been honest: their consensus reaches far beyond the butchery in Gaza. Yes, Sunak harangued, while Starmer waffled. Sunak offered dire plans, Starmer offered few plans. Sunak repeatedly offered misinformation about Labour tax plans, Starmer repeatedly failed to clearly rebut it. Sunak tried trading on a record most have contempt for, Tories included; Starmer offered little break from it.

The most elucidating moment came when Etchingham pointed out that the Institute for Fiscal Studies criticised a “conspiracy of silence” over impending cuts from both parties. Babble from both kept that conspiracy alive. With no commitment to make Britain’s booming well-to-do pay beyond Labour’s oil and gas windfall proposal, those cuts will come – and with Sunak’s overbearing browbeating doing nothing to turn the Tories’ calamitous plight around, it will be Starmer’s Labour imposing them.

Nels Abbey: Sunak had the punchline of the night, but this was no heavyweight contest

Nels Abbey

The battle lines were drawn: the private healthcare advocate and privately educated son of a pharmacist v the state-educated son of a toolmaker. The Conservative party’s flagbearer v the flagbearer for a conservative party still demanding to be called Labour. The former banker v the former barrister. One thing is clear: Rishi Sunak was no Gordon Gekko and Keir Starmer was no Johnnie Cochran: these were two no-thrills middleweights armed with no-thrills ideas.

Starmer had a clear and effective formula: passionately empathise with the pain of the questioner, turn up the passion to tap into any affinity bias with the questioner by playing the class card (let’s face it: short of walking into the audience and cutting the questioner a half-a-million pound cheque on the spot, this strategy was laughably out of bounds for the billion-dollar man, Mr Sunak). And then, with the temperature at fever pitch, proceed to address anything but the question.

Sunak, the first non-white person to ever partake in these (still fairly new) leadership debates, temporarily hopped out of the early political grave he dug for himself to land the punchline of the night: “If you think Labour is going to win, start saving”. A surprising moment of the night came when Starmer did not stamp out Sunak’s assertion that Labour would impose taxes on pensioners. It was a mistake that may cost his party a few points – luckily they have a couple of dozen to spare.

Depressingly yet expectedly, neither offered a positive case for immigration, both eager to out-hawk the other as the deporter-in-chief. Bizarrely, Sunak proudly touted that many European nations agreed with his Rwanda plan – suggesting, alarmingly naively, that he believes that consensus on racist border policy is rare in recent history.

So who won the battle? It is hard to tell, for it is hard to remember. What none of us will ever forget is the painful boredom. We should each be owed £2000 (Sunak’s favourite new number) for the hour spent watching the debate. On to the next one. One hopes, to borrow a phrase, things can only get better.

The Guardian

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