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  1. Election 2024
4 June 2024

The advantage is still with Keir Starmer

A mixed TV debate performance by the Labour leader will not change the course of this campaign.

By Andrew Marr

Well, that would put any ordinary, sane person off politics for life. On tonight’s evidence, these political debates are broken and almost useless: scrappy, snarky, hard to listen to and barely watchable. I thought it would be impossible to find a format worse than Prime Minister’s Questions; I was wrong.

True, there were moments when a real sense of the public mood broke through: spontaneous laughter when Rishi Sunak discussed his national service plan, and – again aimed at Sunak – over his claims about NHS waiting lists falling. When Keir Starmer talked about raising taxes on private schools, non-doms and major energy companies, far from being booed, he won applause.

If I was a Tory spin doctor I would be very careful before making much of those particular tax rises. People understand investment is needed and like them.

But if you knew nothing about the election, you would realise instantly that Sunak was the underdog: he was insistently, relentlessly and sometimes quite effectively on the attack. The Labour leader was too often reduced to bewildered head-shaking, unhappy smiles and mutters of “desperate”.

Starmer needed a much faster and clearer response to the repeated accusation that Labour was planning to raise taxes for most households by £2,000 – it was only two thirds of the way through the “debate” (it wasn’t a debate) that he described it as “absolute garbage”. Too long: the charge was already inside viewers’ heads.

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The same goes for, “what will you do with illegal migrants who come here?” I was surprised that all the prepping and grinding down of policy had not produced clear, crisp explanations of what is, to be fair, a complex position on migration.

It wasn’t surprising that a snap YouGov poll showed Sunak the winner (by 51-49) – he was scrappy and talked annoyingly over both Starmer and the ITV host, Julie Etchingham, but he was thoroughly in the fight from the first moments. Labour will be a little bruised and feel that the presenter favoured the Conservative leader.

That was the impression from the Marr sofa too, though hosting this time-short and incredibly artificial encounter must have been ferociously difficult and Etchingham is a true professional who crashed through the subject areas at rapid speed without stumbling or losing her cool.

Political verdict? Starmer simply had to get through this without making a bad mistake or changing the narrative and he succeeded. Sunak narrowly won on points, but he badly needed a bloody knockout and didn’t get it. Still, after such a relentless experience of Monty Python-esque bad fortune in the opening nine days of the campaign, Sunak leaves Manchester still upright and still in the game. That’s something. People respect a battler. Even so, after all the hype and excitement this didn’t really change anything.

Which takes me to the media verdict: how much better a proper, long-form interview of the two men by a serious and well-briefed journalist would have been. Both men have things in their famous “plans” that the country badly needs to probe and uncover during this campaign. That means follow-up questions; and follow-up questions to the follow-up questions. It sometimes means quite long answers: not this barking in a little glass box. If the 2024 election produces a landslide for the abstention party, television debates may be the reason.

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

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