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24 June 2024

Starmer and Sunak try to charm the readers of the Sun

The newspaper’s election showdown produced a hostile crowd.

By Nicholas Harris

Fielding an audience of Sun readers should be home turf for a Conservative leader: flash your fiscal discipline, flaunt your Euroscepticism, and get your law and borders out. But it’s hard to imagine Rishi Sunak ever picking up a copy – he seems more of a Forbes or Harvard Business Review man. Working this crowd is symbolic of his broader challenge: how to charm Red Wall voters and hold the 2019 Conservative coalition together?

He was up against the Sun’s political editor Harry Cole, a genial host who manages to be burly and jaunty – a prop-forward with a cheeky grin and a sharp post-match suit. He had Sunak on the back foot from the off with the election betting scandal. Cole’s mixed metaphor of moral outrage would make any red-top editor proud: “It’s the last days of Rome; it’s people nicking the candlesticks on the way out.”

But to his credit, Sunak was cheerful and collected. Today, the yappy fifth-former was straining towards Oxford interviewee, clued-up with handy figures and measured phrases. At one point he started dispensing free financial advice in the face of a tricky question about mortgage rates, and he received a polite round of applause for his promises on tax cuts. But Cole was careful to press him on the Conservatives’ record: Sunak can only ever campaign in the subjunctive tense, all golden futures and hopeful prophecies. He drags “the last 14 years” behind him like the Mariner’s albatross.

When Keir Starmer took his place, it looked like we were in store for the opposite: a man with all the momentum in the world behind him who somehow continues to play in a minor key. Cole’s early gambit about Starmer enjoying a pint once the polls close at 10pm was quickly rebuffed with robotic assurances about earning every vote. And Cole soon got out of the way to let the readers get stuck in. They pinned Starmer early on regarding the duplicity of his changing relationship to Jeremy Corbyn: “You were happy to lie to us then. How do we know you’re not lying now?”

Starmer fell back on his most reliable lines, including a decent update of Ronald Reagan’s “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” For most of the event he looked clenched, the posture of a hungry man trying to stop his stomach rumbling during a tense work meeting. He was rocked by several heckles from the audience – accusations that he would backslide on Brexit and that he’s too soft on immigration. For a time, Starmer wasn’t being applauded – the people interrupting him were.

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But then he started to hit his stride. First his well-phrased defence of imposing VAT on private school fees got a clap. And then, discussing his mother’s experience of NHS acute care, some genuine passion seemed to enter the performance. In his Sunday Times Magazine profile of Starmer, Josh Glancy wrote of his “hot but hidden current of emotion”. And at moments like this – on his family especially – the magma seems to bubble up, reddening his face and cracking his voice. It’s a side of his personality he would do well to broadcast better, and more often.

Winning the hearts of Sun readers is not as essential as it once was for Labour leaders. To secure its backing, Tony Blair was willing to go through the process of visiting Rupert Murdoch and “making love like porcupines” (in Murdoch’s own phrase). Starmer hasn’t even received the paper’s backing yet, but seems to be on track for a larger majority nonetheless. Stuart Higgins, the editor in 1997, predicts a “cautious endorsement” without “the great fanfare of a clever old Sun headline”. And the fact that neither Sunak nor Starmer seem likely to command anything as unequivocal as “the Sun backs Blair” is representative of both this debate and this election, where the ambient mood is apathy, and the prevailing positive emotion is hostility.

[See also: The Conservative wipeout]

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