Starmer Denies Sunak Clear Win He Needed in Final UK Debate

(Bloomberg) -- Keir Starmer accused Rishi Sunak of being “out of touch” with voters as the Labour leader promised to fix Britain’s stagnant economy and ailing public services, and the prime minister used the final televised debate to attack his poll-leading rival on taxes ahead of next week’s election.

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In what was likely to be the last set-piece moment for Sunak to try to prevent a resounding Labour victory on July 4, a snap poll of 1,700 Britons by YouGov showed the two leaders were tied in the at-times spiky debate in Nottingham. That will suit Starmer, whose goal between now and election day is to avoid any unforced errors.

The YouGov survey found that viewers thought Sunak was stronger on taxes and immigration, but that Starmer was more likable and trustworthy — and, perhaps crucially, he edged out the Conservative leader on the economy, 47% to 43%. A subsequent survey, by More in Common, suggested Starmer was the overall victor, with 56% saying he performed best, compared with 44% for Sunak.

The head-to-head contest came amid a betting scandal that’s dominated the last two weeks of the campaign, after Conservative candidates and officials were accused of using inside knowledge to make bets on the date of the election before Sunak announced it. Polls show the revelations have cut through with the public and appear to have killed off any remaining hopes of a Tory recovery.

Starmer, who also suspended a Labour candidate who had bet on himself to lose, promised to “reset” politics and restore a sense of public service to high office. “You have to lead from the front on issues like this,” he said. “I think that in the last 14 years politics has become too much about self-entitlement, and MPs thinking about what they could get for themselves.”

It was a reference to the Tory record in government, and Labour’s poll lead is built around tapping into voters’ desire for change. Starmer cited the rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during the pandemic when Boris Johnson was prime minister, and the 49-day, market-roiling premiership of Liz Truss.

The Labour leader appeared more ready to counter Sunak than during the first TV debate at the start of the campaign, when even his own side was frustrated that he took too long to rebut Sunak’s lines on taxes. After the premier interrupted the Labour leader on Wednesday, Starmer hit back. “If you listened to more people in the audience and across the country more often, you might not be so out of touch,” he said, drawing applause from the studio audience.

But with a week left to save his job, Sunak was also combative. He repeatedly urged people not to “surrender” to Labour on tax and borders, in what appeared to be a planned effort to win back Conservative voters who polls show are deserting the party. As the campaign has worn on, the Tory messaging has switched to warnings about what Labour would do with a large majority.

That will also be viewed as a further attempt by the Tory campaign to shore up its core vote, after it diverted resources to seats — including Sunak’s own — that in normal political times would not be in danger of switching to Labour.

Sunak won applause from some in the audience when he subjected Starmer to sustained questioning on what a Labour government would do to address the problem of small boats carrying asylum seekers across the English Channel.

Still, that’s an issue on which the premier is on shaky ground, with crossings reaching a record this year and the right-wing Reform UK party led by Nigel Farage gaining in the polls and drawing votes away from the Tories.

Both leaders faced criticism from an audience member who said voter apathy was high and there was little enthusiasm for either leader. Starmer replied that he “wasn’t surprised” by the question because the country is in “such a state.”

Labour leads the Tories by 21 points, according to Bloomberg’s polling composite. That would be enough to give them a landslide victory if replicated on polling day. A survey by WeThink for the Economist put Labour on course to win the biggest parliamentary majority recorded since universal suffrage in the UK, giving the party 465 seats compared to 76 for the Tories.

Personal poll ratings also suggest Starmer is the more popular of the two — and the gap has been widening in the campaign.

There were familiar arguments during the debate on taxes. The prime minister repeated previous claims that a Labour government would put raise the burden on Britons, which Starmer said was “false.” The Labour leader responded by insisting Tory plans to cut taxes were disingenuous, and that the money isn’t there for further tax breaks while public services are crumbling.

A question about the UK’s relationship with the European Union was revealing, after Sunak appeared to acknowledge that a better trading deal would be available if Britain accepted freedom of movement with the bloc. Starmer, whose party has many voters who want to ease the impact of Brexit, accused the prime minister of being “defeatist.”

“I know we can get a better deal than the botched deal that we’ve got, and I’m going to go out and fight for it,” Starmer said.

--With assistance from Adam Blenford, Julian Harris, Alex Morales, Morwenna Coniam and Gabriela Mello.

(Updates with additional polling in third paragraph.)

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