Snap Poll Signals No Clear Winner in UK Election Debate

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer clashed over taxes in the first TV debate of the UK election campaign, with the prime minister under intense pressure to build some momentum after a slew of polls showed his Conservative Party facing a wipe out in the vote on July 4.

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Sunak accused Starmer of planning to raise taxes, a traditional Tory attack line, repeatedly saying that a Labour government would cost households an average £2,000. Starmer called that “garbage” based on made-up policies, and pointed out that the tax burden on Britons has soared under Sunak.

“He’s the British expert on tax rises,” Starmer said in a heated exchange at the ITV debate in Manchester on Tuesday. “Labour will raise your taxes, it’s in their DNA,” Sunak retorted. “Your work, your car, your pension,” the premier said.

It was the dominant theme of the first major set-piece of the campaign. Sunak tried to sow doubt about what a Starmer government would mean, while the Labour Party leader reminded voters of the various crises that have dogged the Tories in 14 years in office. A YouGov poll suggested neither had a real edge in the exchanges, with 51% saying Sunak had won compared with 49% for Starmer.

But for the prime minister, the missed opportunity to land a more significant blow on his opponent was arguably more significant — with the Tories trailing Labour by 20-plus points in most polls, he needed a boost that didn’t come.

Sunak was at his strongest when doggedly repeating the line that Labour would hike taxes — Tory spinners later said Starmer declined 12 times to refute it — while also leaning heavily on his core campaign message that Starmer lacks clear plans on key issues such as immigration and security.

“With Keir Starmer — apart from higher taxes — you don’t know what you’d get, and neither does he,” Sunak said.

The problem for Sunak is that attack lines on tax that worked for the Tories in past eras carry less weight given the UK’s recent economic turmoil. A recent survey by polling firm More in Common found that Britons see about the same risk of a Labour government raising taxes as a Conservative one.

Starmer had his best moments when criticizing the Conservatives’ 14-year record in government and pitching himself as the option for change. He won some laughs from the audience when he pointed out that National Health Service waiting lists are longer than at the point Sunak said he’d cut them — and as the prime minister tried to argue they had actually come down.

Sunak, meanwhile, drew groans when he described as “transformational” his party’s plan to re-introduce mandatory national service if it is re-elected.

“The arsonists handed back the matches,” Starmer said of the prospect of the Tories getting more time in office. “Imagine how you would feel waking up on July 5 to five more years of the Conservatives.”

Starmer also appeared more in tune with the audience during the early questions on the UK’s ailing public services and the cost-of-living crisis. Both were asked if they would use private health care if they had a loved-one on a waiting list for surgery. Sunak said he would.

“No,” Starmer replied. “I don’t use private health. I use the NHS. That’s where my wife works, in one of the big hospitals; as I said it runs through my DNA.”

Although YouGov’s snap poll gave Sunak a slight edge overall, Starmer came across as more likable, trustworthy and in touch with ordinary people. The Labour leader also won on issues such as the NHS and the cost of living by wider margins than Sunak did on tax and immigration, the pollster found.

Sunak and Starmer were also asked whether they would work with Donald Trump should he win the US presidency. Both said they would, with Sunak saying the UK-US relationship is vital for security and Starmer saying the relationship is “special” and “transcends” the particular leaders in office.

Sunak came into the debate in crisis mode, after the latest YouGov deep-dive into the British electorate showed Labour on course for a landslide victory and the sudden announcement by Nigel Farage — the anti-immigration populist who was a major player in Britain’s decision to leave the European Union — that he was standing for his Reform UK party in the election.

Farage’s entry undermines Sunak’s early campaign strategy, to retain or win back pro-Brexit voters who are leaning toward Reform UK and in doing so, to hold onto the seats in traditional Labour areas that swung to Boris Johnson’s Tories in 2019. Farage stood aside in hundreds of districts that time, aiding the Conservative landslide. This time, he said he wants to punish the Tories for their record in office and what Farage calls their betrayal of Brexit.

The big fear among Conservative MPs even in so-called safe seats is that a resurgent Reform UK would split the right-wing vote, paving the way for Labour to make inroads in Tory heartlands. YouGov modeling put Labour on 422 seats and the Tories on just 140, which would be their worst defeat since 1906.

Sunak tacitly addressed the Reform threat in his closing statement on Tuesday night, saying that a vote for anyone other than the Tories would make it more likely that Labour would win.

People familiar with the matter have said Sunak may try to find a game-changer, such as taking tougher stance on the European Convention on Human Rights or cutting inheritance tax could be options.

Asked if he would pull out of the ECHR, Sunak ducked the question but said his government’s plans — including the policy to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda — comply with the UK’s international obligations.

Starmer’s answer was consistent with Labour’s appeal to more centrist voters, including on its approach to managing the economy and commitment to national security. “If I’m prime minister, we will not pull out of international agreements,” he said. “I want the UK to be a respected player on the global stage, not a pariah who doesn’t agree with international law.”

Tuesday’s was the first of a series of televised clashes between now and polling day: Starmer and Sunak are also due to go head-to-head on June 26, and a seven-way debate involving senior party figures is on Friday.

Televised debates are a recent tradition in British politics. The first was in 2010, when Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed to three with then Conservative leader David Cameron and the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg. Amid tight polling, a wave of “Cleggmania” saw the Liberal Democrats enter government in coalition with the Tories. But the more recent consensus is that they have only a limited impact on the final result.

--With assistance from Asad Zulfiqar.

(Updates with comments from seventh paragraph.)

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