Sunak’s ‘no surrender’ as he slugs out scoreless draw with Starmer in final election debate

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer slugged out the final televised head-to-head debate to scoreless draw according to a snap YouGov poll as the two prepare to lead their parties into the final week of the election.

The YouGov poll gave each 47 per cent with 6 per cent saying neither won.

With everything on the line and Labour holding a massive lead of more than 20 points in most polls, Mr Sunak had a tough task to turn around his party’s fortunes as he locked horns with the Labour leader.

His tactic appeared to be to constantly repeat that a vote for Labour would be “to surrender” to high taxes, high immigration or a tax on pensions.

But in a debate characterised by constant interuptions and bad blood where the two failed to shake each other’s hands at the conclusion, a question by a lifelong Tory voter appeared to capture the the disenchanted mood of the nation.

Presenter Mishal Husain with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during their BBC head-to-head debate in Nottingham (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA) (PA Media)
Presenter Mishal Husain with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during their BBC head-to-head debate in Nottingham (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA) (PA Media)

The audience member at the debate at Nottingham Trent University received the loudest applause of the 90 minute debate when he asked: “Are you two really the best we've got to be the next prime minister of our great country?"

He had described Sunak as “a mediocre prime minister” and was as uncomplimentary about the Labour leader leaving the two men momentarily stunned.

The question reflected polling evidence highlighted by The Independent that this general election could have a historically low turnout particularly among young people with 41 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds altready saying they will not vote.

Sunak and Starmer clash in the debate (BBC via Getty Images)
Sunak and Starmer clash in the debate (BBC via Getty Images)

The final question in fact came from a student who pointed out that many in her generation are leaving the country because they cannot afford to buy a home or get a decent job.

The first question of the night had gone on a similar theme, asking about why people should vote after a loss of integrity in politics.

The question appeared to focus on the recent gambling scandal, which first engulfed the Tories but has since dragged in Labour.

Sir Keir laid the blame at the Prime Minister’s door, saying: “You have to lead from the front on issues like this.”

He linked the scandal to so-called partygate, when Mr Sunak was fined for busting lockdown rules.

Sir Keir said: “What I did, when one of my team was alleged to have been involved and investigated by the Gambling Commission, they were suspended within minutes, because I knew it made it really important to be swift.

Starmer was visibly flustered as the debate wore on (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Starmer was visibly flustered as the debate wore on (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“The Prime Minister delayed and delayed and delayed until eventually he was bullied into taking action.”

Mr Sunak responded: “It was important to me that given the seriousness and the sensitivity of the matters at hand that they were dealt with properly, and that’s what I’ve done.”

The Prime Minister repeated that he was “frustrated” and “furious” about the affair.

He hit back at the Labour leader by launching an attack on his tax plans, saying Sir Keir “is not being honest with everyone about his plans to raise their taxes” and warning voters repeatedly not to “surrender to their tax rises”.

As the Conservative leader deployed taxation as his main attack line, his party’s X account was renamed “Tax Check UK” and was prolifically tweeting about what a Labour government could mean for taxes.

Mr Sunak went after Sir Keir on “his many U-tturns” insisting that “this is part of integrity in politics too”.

The prime minister had begun the debate looking as though he was on the back foot, tired and demoralised after an election campaign dogged by scandal and missteps including the betting scandal and debating fiacso.

But while Starmer appeared to be on top, an intervention by the BBC’s Mishal Husain, who was chairing the debate, suddenly appeared to knock him off balance and leave him red faced and flustered for the second half.

Sir Keir had been attacking Sunak for “falling into line” behind Liz Truss ahead of her mini budget after he lost to her in the Tory leadership contest. This was in response to Mr Sunak pointing out he had warned against Truss’ economic plans which crashed the economy.

As he attempted to accuse the prime minister of trying to have it both ways, Husain interjected: “You know what it is like to fall in behind a leader.”

The remark came after weeks of Starmer defending being in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and claiming it did not matter because he knew Labour was going to lose.

The Labour leader struggled to recover from the moment with Mr Sunak, who was noticeably laughing at his opponent, then piling in on Sir Keir’s claim he could renegotiate returns of illegal migrants to their countries of origin.

“The migrants are coming from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan”, Mr Sunak responded.

“Will you sit down with the Ayatollahs? Are you going to try to do a deal with the Taliban? It’s completely nonsensical - you are taking people for fools,” he added.

However, Mr Sunak failed to get any applause for his repeated attacks on Labour alleged tax plans and he noticeably only mentioned his controversial claim that Sir Keir would increase taxes by £2,000 per household at the very end, when the Labour leader had no chance to properly respond.

The early exchanges were also dominated by the noise from outside by pro-Palestinian demonstrators, who had converged on the venue and could be clearly heard by the TV audience.

BBC journalist Husain addressed it at one point early in the debate, to alert the audience to what was happening, and described the protest as another part of the UK’s democracy.

Pro-Palestine protesters were among those demonstrating outside the venue, including a group called Nottingham Solidarity Group, who confirmed their attendance on social media.