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  1. Election 2024
5 June 2024

The low-quality debate changed nothing

Keir Starmer looked uncomfortable and stiff on stage – but it doesn’t matter.

By Freddie Hayward

No one won last night’s debate, which is great news for Keir Starmer. Labour’s 20-point lead in the polls means anything but total victory for Rishi Sunak would have failed to shift the election campaign in the Conservatives’ favour. The format meant neither man could string more than a couple of sentences together. Topics whizzed past, from tax to immigration to social care to Gareth Southgate’s management style. All of which was made worse because Sunak kept interrupting Starmer, as he did against Liz Truss in the 2022 Tory leadership debates.

What they did say was low quality. Both sides trotted out dodgy figures that bent reality to suit them. The shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth stormed around the spin room flinging a dossier of the Tory’s unfunded commitments into hacks’ hands. “Desperate scattergun chaos!” Labour’s chief rankler cried. He’d totted up Tory spending commitments based on phantom policies (such as abolishing inheritance tax). Sunak, meanwhile, landed some blows in the debate by claiming Starmer would impose £2,000 tax rises on families. He said it was civil service analysis. This was not true, as a story in the BBC quickly revealed.

But the biggest lie, as George points out in his on-the-spot review, was that neither side confronted the devastating spending cuts planned for after the election. Starmer said he didn’t want to reimpose austerity but didn’t explain how, nor did he claim economic growth will solve everything. He looked uncomfortable on the stage and his answers were not as slick and concise as you might expect after months of preparation. He played defensively, bringing Sunak back again and again to the Tories’ record in the last 14 years.

After the debate, the leaders’ foot soldiers – carefully supervised by lingering aides – delivered interview after interview claiming their man had won the fight. Michael Gove – emphatic, precise and combative – said this was the moment Starmer’s campaign shattered into pieces. That’s not true. But it doesn’t really matter. Voters will have heard little apart from shouting. The fundamentals have not changed; but the quality of debate in this campaign just got even worse.

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

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[See also: Nigel Farage’s entrance should terrify the Tories]

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