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27 June 2024

Can Rishi Sunak turn it around?

The Prime Minister has defined his talking points – but it’s too late to make an impact.

By Freddie Hayward

Rishi Sunak delivered another solid performance in last night’s BBC head-to-head with Keir Starmer, perfecting his springy if supercilious debating style.

His strategy is to convince voters that Starmer is not being honest about the tax rises and financial damage the Labour leader would inflict on the country as prime minister. Sunak, in contrast, wants to be seen as frank. “You may disagree with me, but this is what I think,” has become a refrain. That’s the divide he wants to draw between himself and Starmer, who continues to suffer from supporting, and then turning on, Jeremy Corbyn. The question is: will it work?

Both leaders have more in common than they would like to admit. Both are diligent, details-oriented, technocratic workaholics. But it was Sunak who got the best over Starmer last night.

Much as when he failed to rebut the claim Labour would impose tax rises of £2,000 in the first debate, Starmer missed opportunities to ram home Labour’s plan. When asked about what he would do for women, he didn’t mention Labour’s mission to halve violence against women and girls. When asked how he would pay for policies, he didn’t mention economic growth. His argument on welfare seemed to be that people could only work when they are healthy, therefore, reducing NHS waiting lists will reduce the welfare bill. But he didn’t make the connection clear; he appeared to be avoiding the question by citing the NHS.

All of which created a vacuum for Sunak to fill. The Prime Minister has defined his talking points. He reeled off welfare, tax and housing policies with a precision that belied their efficacy but which drew a sharp contrast with a less forthcoming Starmer. Sunak’s incredulity towards Labour’s plan to “smash the people-smuggling gangs” was effective because it tapped into people’s scepticism about whether the boats can be stopped from coming across the Channel. As George writes in his review, “negative campaigning enjoys a deservedly bad reputation – but it does change minds”.

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And yet, little of this matters. The debate stretched for over an hour and a quarter in a 43-day campaign. Viewing numbers are down compared with 2019. The abundance of debates (we’ve had seven) has dulled their impact. An audience member asked a question that epitomised the problem: “Are you two really the best we have got?” The question was personal, an attack on both men as individuals.

One reason policy has been pushed to the side in this election, alongside the fact that people want the Tories gone at whatever cost, is that Starmer holds as close to the Conservatives as possible to avoid drifting into the weeds. It’s an uninspiring strategy and could create further problems in the future, but the polls suggest it is working.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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