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UK TV Election Debate: And the Winner is... Both and Neither

The opinion polls in British politics are many things, but close is not one of them. Two of the latest show Labour projected to win 114 and 194 seat majorities, and a 25-point lead has become the norm amongst others.

But YouGov’s polling immediately after the first televised debate tells a different, and a rare, story. 51% of people surveyed felt Rishi Sunak came out on top, putting aside political loyalties. And for the Prime Minister it wasn’t so much a breath of fresh air as much as it was a gasp of survival. 


His advisors feel this environment is where their man performs best. And compared to the rest of the campaign trail where he’s so far found himself in and amongst a monsoon, under an Exit sign, in front of the Titanic, in a brewery with football-less Welshmen (who were accidentally reminded of it) and then on a football pitch itself almost slipping while trying to weave in and out of cones, the bar was quite low. 


Nonetheless, under studio lighting and ready to challenge his opponent with the kind of posturing one might expect from a Leader of the Opposition, Rishi Sunak had attack lines and phrases prepared. That didn’t prevent a gut-wrenching opening shot of both leaders stood behind host Julie Etchingham as awkwardly as you could possibly imagine.


But once things started, it wasn’t awkward. There wasn’t any time for it to be. Both talked over each other, regularly overrunning their allocated 45-second answer slots, and aiming jibes no less than policies were being put forward. And the one that got the most traction was the claim that a Labour government would increase taxes on the British citizen by £2,000. It seems the number came from costing the Labour spending proposals and then calculating the impact pro-rata. That doesn’t count for any money that could be borrowed or the fact that it wouldn’t translate to a flat fee for all Brits. But the interest does not stem from what was said, but rather how it was received. 


It took roughly 20 minutes of a one-hour debate for Keir Starmer to address the claim: it had been mentioned from but a few minutes in. And when he did, he was interrupted and only half-debunked it, not being able to provide a response as soundbite-able as Rishi Sunak’s attack. It took a whole 52 minutes for the Labour leader to brand it “absolute garbage”. By that time social media had been well-exercised. Shadow frontbenchers came in on the attack of the claim, but not in time for questions to be raised of why their leader hadn’t addressed it head-on. 30 minutes after the show ending a furious Labour press release had been put out: “RISHI SUNAK LIED 11 TIMES ON LABOUR TAX PLANS”. But perhaps it was the Prime Minister’s belligerence that coloured YouGov’s poll. 


But on other issues Starmer was more comprehensive. Unlike his opposite number, he’s more comfortable out on the trail, in a casual jacket meeting voters in a non-league football ground, so this was always going to be more of a challenge than the rest of the campaign so far. His lines about Labour being the party to “roll up its sleeves” has previously looked and sounded better when his sleeves are actually rolled up. But his voicing of plans to end non-domicile tax status was met with applause, and as a former lawyer he seemed comfortable discussing the European Court of Human Rights in relation to immigration controls, and the willingness not to send a loved one through private healthcare if they needed it was a contrast to his opposite number. 


He was on-brand for Keir Starmer: safe, measured and a little bit boring, the way he’s claimed Britain wants its politicians to be. And with opinion polls looking the way they are, his reasoning finds it hard to be faulted. Rishi Sunak, on the other hand, needs to inspire something - so came hurtling out of the blocks with the belligerence of a man fighting for his political future. And a machine-gun war of words ensued at the expense of Julie Etchingham, who tried increasingly less patiently to keep them in check.


So, who won? They both came and did what they were meant to do. And we weren’t much better off for it.


Image: UK Parliament / Maria Unger


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