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TV Debates are played by different rules

05.06.24 | Written by Matt Spencer

TV debates have become a fixture of General Election campaigns but they tend to have little direct bearing on the outcome. But they can drive the news agenda.

At last night’s ITV debate, Sunak, perhaps the only person prepared for this campaign, landed early blows on taxation which had Starmer rattled. It appears he hadn’t expected the PM to lean so heavy on an imagined tax increase.

The Conservatives had tried to make the claim that Labour would increase taxes by £2,000 earlier in the campaign. Even the Tory-friendly papers did not give this claim much credence and the permanent secretary of the Treasury has even written a letter saying the claim does not represent the view of the civil service. But after the PM repeated the claim over a dozen times in last night’s debate the £2,000 figure appeared on most of the front pages; giving the attack line legs and shaping the debate.

Labour’s Comms team looked on in horror as it took Starmer nearly 25 minutes to knock this claim on the head but the damage had already been done. Starmer recovered enough and struck combination hits of his own on the NHS, immigration and education which got the TV audience on his side. But these are not what are driving today’s agenda.  

It was encouraging that Starmer touched on housing, outlining Labour’s pledges to build 1.5million homes over the next Parliament, reform the planning system and devolve greater powers to Mayors to achieve this. But this has not fed down to today’s news coverage.

Starmer’s lawyerly style is well suited to a courtroom or a well prepared Prime Minister’s Questions session. The cut and thrust of TV debate, complete with interruptions, over talking and a greatly reduced reliance on the truth all put Starmer well outside of his comfort zone. He will have to adapt if he wants to avoid having his campaign grid up-ended by his opponent.

Sunak had to come out fighting and confident. Perhaps a surprise in light of this week’s YouGov poll which predicted a Labour supermajority.  Starmer needs to adapt his style because if he cannot best one of the country’s most unpopular Prime Ministers it will be difficult for the voting public to picture him holding the keys to No. 10 and representing the country on the world stage.

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