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  1. Election 2024
7 June 2024updated 10 Jun 2024 2:46pm

Rishi Sunak was the big loser of the election debate

Penny Mordaunt’s ruthless attack on the Prime Minister was the defining moment.

By George Eaton

Rishi Sunak was the big loser from tonight’s seven-way BBC election debate – and he wasn’t even on the stage. Penny Mordaunt wasted no time in ruthlessly distancing herself from her former leadership rival, declaring that he was “completely wrong” to leave the D-Day ceremony early. Asked whether she would have left early, the former naval reservist replied: “I didn’t go to D-Day, I think what happened was very wrong.” For good measure, Nigel Farage assailed Sunak as a “complete and utter disgrace” and “unpatriotic”. 

But after a dismal week, the Conservatives will be relieved that the Reform leader failed to dominate proceedings. His attacks on the Labour-Tory duopoly and on high immigration were met with only tepid applause. Instead, it was the pro-migration Stephen Flynn (of the SNP) and Rhun ap Iorwerth (of Plaid Cymru) who won over the audience. (Though how representative it was will be a point of debate.) When Farage called for the NHS to be replaced by a French-style insurance system it gifted his opponents a chance to argue that he wants to privatise the health service.

What of Angela Rayner? Both Farage and Mordaunt sought to cast her as a politician to fear. “She might be prime minister in four or five years’ time,” quipped Mordaunt. Farage, meanwhile, described Rayner as Labour’s “real leader”. But Starmer’s deputy remained composed – adopting a less combative approach than at PMQs. Targeted by Mordaunt for her past vote against Trident renewal – “imagine what Putin is thinking” – Rayner was unfazed and hailed Labour’s “triple lock” on the nuclear deterrent. 

On tax – the subject on which Starmer stumbled earlier this week – she repeatedly vowed that the party “would not raise taxes on working people”. But that leaves open the question of whether it would do so on wealth: Labour has pointedly not ruled out increasing capital gains tax or introducing new council tax bands on expensive properties. 

The SNP’s Flynn – one of parliament’s finest orators – was a commanding presence. He drew applause when he denounced the “race to the bottom” on migration and denounced the two main parties’ “conspiracy of silence” on tax and Brexit. In a politically telling moment, Flynn also attacked Labour for not supporting new North Sea oil and gas licences – an argument that will run throughout the next parliament. 

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For the Greens, co-leader Carla Denyer – who is projected to defeat shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire in Bristol Central – used her moment well, drawing rare laughter when she quipped that Starmer “had changed Labour – he’s changed them into the Conservatives”.

The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader Daisy Cooper struggled to produce anything as memorable as Ed Davey’s stunts and was discomfited by Farage over tuition fees (“that’s a sore subject for us, for sure,” she conceded). But she recited her party’s distinctive themes – social care, mental health and sewage – with ease.

Mordaunt, whose voice has acquired a strangely Australian lilt, did a far better job of empathising with voters over the cost-of-living crisis than Sunak. But the overriding impression was that almost nothing she says will make a difference. Her polished closing statement was met with comically muted applause. This is a punishment election and the Tories were punished by all sides tonight. 

It is this that should trouble Sunak above all. The UK’s first-past-the-post system means that there is almost no limit to how far the Tories can fall – ask Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In time, rather than masquerading as potential winners, the Conservatives may plead with voters to deny Labour absolute power. But tonight will be remembered for the disintegration of what remains of Sunak’s authority.

[See also: The left power list 2024]

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