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12 June 2024

Sky News debate: all is lost for Rishi Sunak

Keir Starmer sails to victory, in spite of a tricky interview.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Here’s one thing we learned from tonight’s leaders’ event in Grimsby: a journalistic grilling followed by questions from the public is more revealing than a head-to-head debate where candidates can hide behind insulting each other. Both Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak had a torrid time – both will currently be nursing bruises and agonising over awkward exchanges they wish had gone better.

Keir Starmer had the dubious honour of going first. He turned up with one aim: don’t look weak.

Clearly he had learned from last week’s debate against Rishi Sunak – in which the prime minister managed to repeat his claim that Labour would raise taxes by £2,000 per household multiple times almost without challenge. Maybe he was still smarting from the opportunities he missed – perhaps that is why he loudly debunked the figure. Or, maybe someone (Angela Rayner, perhaps) had told him that “the best defence is a good offense”.

Either way, the dynamic between Starmer and Sky’s expertly combative political editor Beth Rigby was fiery from the get-go. He must have known what was coming: questions about his past support for Jeremy Corbyn, followed by a vertiginous change-of-heart. Equally tricky was an interrogation about the promises he made to become Labour leader, only to quickly sideline in office. The hardest line: why, after all that, should anyone trust him now? He came out fighting – so much so, in fact, that for most of the first half of his performance he and Rigby were essentially talking over one another.

Did we hear anything we didn’t already know? It was eye-opening to hear Starmer say so bluntly that he campaigned in 2019 for the sake of Labour colleagues, safe in the knowledge that Corbyn would never be prime minister. Revealing too was his acknowledgement that he is “not politically tribal… I actually believe there are good people who vote other than Labour” – open admission of Labour’s core campaign strategy to reach out to disaffected Tories and show them the party will welcome them, instead of blaming the voters for the disastrous defeat of 2019.

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Challenged about how he can possibly fund the regenerative agenda (one he says is necessary) without the tax rises he has emphatically ruled out, Starmer was left exposed. He has little to fall back on, beyond insisting the manifesto released tomorrow will be fully funded. Rigby didn’t let up, proffering the possibility of capital gains or council tax changes, but Starmer took the blows rather than falling into the trap. Although, as Rigby pointed out, saying there is “no plan” to do something isn’t the same as ruling it out.

And in between the recital of well-known soundbites, occasionally, we got a glimpse of something harder and less polished. When he was met with a round of laughter from the audience at his repeated (yet again…) anecdote about his father being a tool-maker, Starmer whipped back: “At times we couldn’t make ends meet which actually isn’t a laughing matter.”

Starmer seemed more confident standing up for himself with Rigby than he did trading barbs with Sunak himself last week, even if he did find himself torn apart at times. The ride he got from the audience wasn’t any easier – with one woman picking up on Rigby’s line of questioning to demand how the promises Labour keeps making would be funded.

The toughest interaction came from a man telling Starmer he was like a “political robot”. Given the chance to demonstrate his humanity, the Labour leader seemed to visibly glitch.  

If awkward pauses were the cringe-worthy motif of Starmer’s performance, for Sunak it was awkward laughter. And, whereas Starmer was pre-emptively aggressive with Rigby, the PM went for a patronising mode. There was less cross-talk, because Rigby didn’t need to interrupt Sunak to point out the flaws in his answers – he did that for himself.

As with Starmer, the trickiest question came on the subject of tax. Sunak was challenged on how he can really claim that the Tories are cutting taxes when the tax burden is due to rise over the next parliament. Sunak tied himself in knots trying to avoid answering – and was rewarded with laughs from the audience. He got more laughs as he tried to explain how his pledge to get debt falling was actually working even if debt is higher now than when he made the promise. And when he tried a similar tactic on the fact that NHS waiting lists are also going in the wrong direction – with the added edge of blaming junior doctors (one of which was in the audience and had just asked Starmer a question) and their industrial action – laughter turned to boos.

The audience questions were equally brutal. It’s hard to pick the defining moment. Was it when the billionaire prime minister smugly explained to a man whose daughter can’t afford the mortgage rates to buy a house about his stamp duty exemption on properties worth up to £425,000, only to be met with the retort “I don’t think she was thinking of buying a house that expensive”? Was it when he argued with a teenager about national service and what the party of the quadruple lock for pensions was doing for young people?

Both are strong contenders. But the most revealing question was probably that asked by a woman who said she had been not just a Tory voter but a Tory member – indeed, a former party chair. Now, she said, she was “undecided” and “ashamed” of the party. Between the partygate scandal and Sunak’s decision last week to skip out on the D-Day commemorations, she had lost faith. “You’ve got a long way to go to rebuild trust,” she told Sunak.

He nodded. He apologised. He said he accepted it. But the prime minister looked deflated, confronted with the reality, live on national television, that even lifelong Conservatives are abandoning the sinking ship. There was no way to deflect, no platitudes about clear plans and secure futures to hide behind. This wasn’t the moment the Conservative campaign fell apart, but perhaps when we look back, we will see it as the moment Sunak realised all was lost.

[See also: Keir Starmer is no hero but he is a winner]

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