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Sunak vs Starmer – Round One

04.06.24 | Written by Dan Humphreys

This evening heralds the first of the televised debates for the 2024 general election. It will be one of two head-to-head debates between the two men vying to be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. 

If it was two other participants we might be forecasting that this could be the point at which some added Farage-free excitement is injected into the campaign. Whatever your feelings about Rishi Sunak and Sir Kier Starmer the word ‘excitement’ is not one that is likely to spring to mind when you think of either. As such, we’re unlikely to be entertained but the debates could yet have an impact on the election. 

The outcome of the general election is now well and truly baked in. It would take something momentous to stop Keir Starmer from becoming Prime Minister. At the moment he isn’t just heading for a win. He is heading for the biggest landslide victory of modern times. The seat projections have him shifting an eighty seat Tory majority to a Labour majority that’s bigger than Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide. 

The debates will play a role in determining whether he can maintain that trajectory or whether Rishi Sunak, so far hapless on the campaign trail, can start to claw back some ground and Conservative (opposition) seats. 

Prime ministerial debates were introduced to the UK in 2010. David Cameron first called for them when he running to be the leader of the Conservative Party in 2005. It was a challenge that came back to bite him. By the time the 2010 election campaign came around he was the front runner, up against the floundering Prime Minister Gordon Brown and fresh faced new leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg. The 2010 debates did nothing for Cameron and boosted Clegg’s popularity leading the ‘Cleggmania’ phenomenon. 

Since then, the head-to-head debates have become an inevitability that the favourite tries to wriggle out of and the underdog desperately needs. Just last week Rishi Sunak challenged Keir Starmer to meet him for six debates, one a week, in the run up to the general election. Starmer demurred, his spokespeople replying that the leader of the Labour Party would prefer to speak directly to the voters. Sunak’s desperate challenge and Starmer’s reluctance to accept tell us all we need to know (if we didn’t already) about who has the most to gain and who has the most to lose. 

So, what can we expect from this evening’s debate? The answer regrettably is ‘not much’. These debates are a good opportunity for adept communicators to get their message across and convince undecided voters. Sunak and Starmer can both string a sentence together but beyond that neither has the star quality of a Clinton or Blair nor the ability of a Johnson or Trump to entertain. With that in mind it’s possible that viewing figures are so low that there are hardly any voters watching to be persuaded either way. 

Sunak and Starmer have both participated in live TV debates before. Sunak stood in for Johnson in the 2019 election and then debated Liz Truss and the other Tory hopefuls in the 2022 leadership election. In the Labour leadership contest in 2020 Starmer took part in four debates with the other leadership contenders. 

Sunak was a complete unknown outside of Westminster in 2019 and acquitted himself well in that debate. In the 2022 leadership debates he performed relatively well if not setting the world alight. Moments that tend to stand out are when he shouted over Liz Truss and when his clunky attempts at levity came across badly. Both let him down. 

In the 2020 Labour leadership debates Starmer was similarly competent without exciting anyone. His main pitch was as the unity candidate who would bring the left and right of the Labour Party together. He stuck to his lines and managed to evade being drawn into making any policy commitments. 

This evening Sunak will have to take some gambles. Like a boxer who is well down on points in the final rounds, he will have to aim for some big knock out punches. To stick with the boxing analogy, that risks lowering his guard and letting his opponent land some easy punches of his own. Expect him to go in on the Labour Party not having a plan, Starmer’s past support for Jeremy Corbyn and maybe some digs about Starmer’s time as a defence lawyer. 

Starmer needs to stick to playing a role similar to the one he played in 2020. Go in with some prepared lines about the chaos of recent years, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and the Tories ‘crashing the economy’. He needn’t worry about the personal attacks that may come his way, but he will need to have a strategy for dealing with questions about the lack of policies that he has unveiled. He is travelling ‘policy light’ and not intending to make any big pledges. It’s a cynical but sensible approach. 

Starmer doesn’t need to wipe the floor with Sunak. He just needs to get through these debates unscathed. Expect him to play it safe this evening. It will be interesting to see how he handles any public pressure over his strategic reluctance to set out any detailed plans. So long as he doesn’t drop any clangers he will continue on his path to a super-majority. It’s hard to see what Sunak can do to shift the dial. This evening’s debate may well be his last chance to alter the course of the campaign. His past performances don’t give us any reason to suspect that this will be the case. 

Sunak vs Starmer - Round One 1