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Sunak 5-3 Starmer: Post-Match Analysis

Last night the UK was treated to its first head-to-head debate between Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer.


Let me be crystal clear from the very beginning. I am now taking off my political hat and side-lining my own political views to present an objective post-match analysis of the debate. And from this objective vantage point, Sunak won the issues of the debate 5-3. It’s worth noting this rather close result has been backed up by a snap YouGov poll, where viewers concluded a 51% victory for Sunak.


Let me take you through each of the eight key issues in order of the debate last night.


The cost-of-living crisis came first. This was a closer contest than you might expect given that Sunak’s government has presided over the cost of living – which surely gives Labour a huge advantage. But one of the first things Starmer said was that Liz Truss crashed the economy.


Who cares about Truss? This is an election debate between you and Rishi Sunak, and you decide to talk about Truss? Based on that logic, Sunak could say don’t elect Keir Starmer because Gordon Brown’s Labour government had no money left when they filed out of Westminster in 2010.


Sunak understandably pointed to the UK’s lower inflation rate since he’s taken office. He also said the Tories will cut taxes – which led to the first of many outings on the night for the ‘Labour’s tax policies will cost every one of you £2,000’ soundbite.


So, after the cost of living, it was 1-0 Starmer. But the contest was so cagey that it was hardly a strong victory for Labour – especially in an area where being in opposition gives them a hands-down advantage.


Now onto health and social care. Sunak scored a major own goal here when he claimed NHS waiting lists were going down – right after Starmer had said they’d gone up from 7.2 to 7.5 million people since Sunak has been Prime Minister. And this from “the man who’s meant to be good at maths”, as Starmer said, was not a great showing. Sunak then blamed industrial action for the problem, and blaming doctors and nurses is political suicide in a country whose only unified loyalty is the NHS.


Sunak quickly got himself back on track by saying no to a 35% pay rise for junior doctors because that would increase tax for working people. Meanwhile, all Starmer could say was that he’d get in the room and negotiate. I’m sure union bosses across Britain are licking their greedy lips at the thought of Starmer’s hit and hope approach. He’d fold like a cheap tent in that room.


But Sunak’s admission that he would use private healthcare if the NHS was broken was the final tilt in the balance towards another Starmer victory. 2-0 Labour.


On education, Starmer is always going to have the edge because increasing VAT on private education makes Labour the champions of the state schools that most of us rely on. Nobody is thinking about how making private schools unaffordable will drive more kids into state schools, only increasing pressure on overstretched teachers. And as a result, Starmer scored a hattrick to make it 3-0.


But this was a tale of two halves. God only knows what Sunak said to himself in his half-time team talk but, hell, it’s something Sir Alex Ferguson would be proud of. Because, from this point on, Sunak simply couldn’t stop scoring.


The topic of tax meant this £2,000 figure reared its head again, but the big story of this section was for pensioners. The Tories’ triple lock plus is a major tick for Britain’s silver surfers when compared to Starmer’s unprecedented retirement tax.


But the worst bit is still yet to come. Because Sunak was pressing hard for an answer to this question: why will pensioners pay retirement tax under a Labour government? And do you know what Starmer began with? “The big problem with Liz Truss…” I’ll say it again. Who the heck cares about Liz Truss? You are facing Rishi Sunak, so stop banging on about his predecessor. By this point, you could feel the tide turning. Sunak got a goal back – it was 3-1.


Immigration has been an unbelievably hot topic – only made hotter by the prospect of Nigel Farage’s return to Westminster after he became Reform UK’s leader this week. And, boy, did Sunak turn out for the Tories on this one.


Sunak has a readymade plan – the planes are taxiing on the runway to deport illegal immigrants to Rwanda, but they’ll only take off if the Tories win the election. This is huge leverage.


As you’d expect, Starmer claimed Rwanda was an “expensive gimmick” and, instead, Labour would smash the gangs trafficking illegal immigrants to the UK. But, as Sunak helpfully pointed out, his Conservatives passed new laws under which over 1,000 criminals have already been arrested. And yet Starmer voted against these laws.


At this point, Starmer was backed into a corner. And he decided to fly the white flag. Starmer was asked if he would consider using a third country, as the Rwanda plan does, to deal with illegal immigrants. He said yes.


If you’ve ever wanted to witness political suicide, you’ve now seen it. What on earth was he thinking? Labour have eternally banged on about Rwanda being such a terrible idea – and yet in the biggest public forum of the election so far, the Labour leader says he now does agree with the Rwanda plan.


I’ve said before Starmer has no plan for immigration – and now you’ve seen that very gaping omission, there in black and white. I’m not being political when I say that. I’m just telling you the truth. Starmer 3-2 Sunak.


It was clear by this point that we had a close fight on our hands. And, as the debate turned to Gaza, it looked like Starmer was faltering. All he could do was stand there and mutter “shocking” or “nonsense” as Sunak was speaking. Even the children in a primary school playground will say this is a terrible comeback. Because, if Labour had any meaningful policy response, you would’ve heard it.


And things didn’t improve for Starmer. I’ve never seen such despair written all over a man’s face than when Sunak dropped the bomb that Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner does not believe in the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Starmer shut his eyes and momentarily froze – it was like watching him malfunction.


After turning himself off and on again, all Starmer could do was go back to his role as Director of Public Prosecutions. This turned out to be another own goal when Sunak namedropped Abu Qatada, asking the public to Google it. So, I have. And it turns out Starmer was a defendant for Qatada, who was once dubbed ‘Osama bin Laden’s ambassador in Europe’. And that completed a remarkable comeback for Rishi. 3-3.


On climate, I’m sure Starmer has some reasonable plans for Great British Energy and ramping up renewables and insulating homes. But nobody was listening, because they were all hooked on Sunak’s soundbite: if you think Labour will win, start saving.


It is paramount that we tackle climate change – of course it is. But the rising cost of living is on everybody’s lips, and green technology is still expensive. So, Sunak’s concerns around the cost of heat pumps and electric cars are perfectly aligned with the concerns of working people who simply cannot afford these wholesale lifestyle changes.


You can’t moan about the cost of living and then, minutes later, try and saddle people with the cost of climate change. Pick a side. You’ll either get bills down, or make some sacrifices to achieve a long-term goal. And whilst climate change should unite us, people are currently choosing between heating and eating thanks to Putin’s activities in Ukraine. That’s what matters right now – and that’s what Sunak appealed to. I’m afraid that’s 4-3 Sunak.


The final question was about young people. Naturally, Starmer was quick out of the blocks with his “teenage Dad’s Army” quip about Sunak’s pledge to introduce national service. But this is ridiculous. People actually like the idea – and it is not only about bolstering the army’s reserves, but about equipping young people with discipline and transferable skills.


True, Starmer promised home building and education too – cue ‘my dad’s a toolmaker’. But he got himself tied up in debating the past 14 years of Conservative government. This harking back to the past has got to stop. Because no matter who is in power, the global problems are the same.


A global slowdown in economic growth, a climate emergency, an unprecedented pandemic and closely followed by a major war in Ukraine are not small events. It would not have made a spit of difference if Jeremy Corbyn or even long-lost Karl Marx were in power. Anybody would have struggled. Equally, New Labour’s 1997-2010 stint in power was blessed with a digital revolution and a booming global economy – a fountain of good luck which would have helped any political party.


So, this whole ‘14 years’ narrative is pointless. This election is about the future and who you want to run your country. This requires a forward vision – but Starmer, living up to his old Captain Hindsight title, is too busy complaining about what he can see in his rear-view mirror. And that tops off a miraculous 5-3 victory for Rishi Sunak in last night’s debate.


This first debate is a turning point. I’m not saying Sunak is now guaranteed to storm to victory. But he’s given himself a springboard to make a remarkable election comeback – just as he came back to win the debate last night.


Everybody thought it was a foregone conclusion that Starmer must be better than Sunak – Labour must be better than the Conservatives. But after last night’s display, perhaps people are realising this is very much all to play for. Starmer is floundering. Sunak is flying.


Image: UK Parliament / Maria Unger


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