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  1. Election 2024
4 June 2024

Rishi Sunak did not get the game changer he needed

The Prime Minister unsettled the Labour leader but the fundamentals remain the same.

By George Eaton

Labour is heading for a landslide victory and the Conservatives for an epic defeat. As a consequence, it was Rishi Sunak who arrived with the most to do at tonight’s ITV election debate.

The Prime Minister sought to cast Keir Starmer as an untested leader who would raise taxes, punish pensioners and increase immigration. At times, Sunak succeeded in discomfiting the Labour leader. Starmer struggled to rebut his repeated claim that Labour would raise taxes by £2,000 per family. It was only after much waffle on fiscal assumptions that Starmer eventually declared the figure was “absolute garbage”. When Sunak accused him of planning a “retirement tax”, the Labour leader could only invoke Liz Truss (a strong card, in fairness). 

But this debate failed to produce the game changer that Sunak needs – such events rarely do. Instead, it offered ample evidence of why Labour enjoys such a commanding poll lead. Starmer related far more to audience members on cost of living and the NHS. He emphasised his record of public service – casting Sunak as an avaricious financier – declared that he would never use private healthcare (unlike the Conservative leader) and vowed to tax private schools, non-doms and oil and gas firms (to notable applause). This soft populism resonates with voters weary of being ripped off.

Even when Sunak was at his strongest he was hamstrung by the Tories’ record. Starmer branded him the “British expert on tax rises” as he reminded viewers of the government’s 26 tax rises. He called him “the most liberal prime minister we’ve ever had on immigration” (though that title should really go to Boris Johnson). 

Sunak was met with groans when he boasted that NHS waiting lists were “coming down from where they were when they were higher” and incredulous laughter when he claimed that national service for 18-year-olds would be “transformational”. His repeated references to the distant Covid-19 furlough scheme resembled a friend reminding you of the round they once bought. 

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A snap YouGov poll of viewers suggested a narrow Sunak victory: 51-49. The Prime Minister did indeed land some blows – but nothing resembling a knockout. 

If tonight’s debate is remembered for anything it will likely be the moment that the ITV presenter Julie Etchingham sought to inject some reality into proceedings. Both men have pledged not to raise income tax, National Insurance or VAT, she observed: are they really that different? It is this conspiracy of silence that will haunt the next government as it grapples with ever-greater spending pressures.

[See also: The left power list 2024]

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