Anne Sandager
1 week ago

Spaghetti on the Wall: Wins and Misses in First Sunak-Starmer Showdown

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer went head-to-head Tuesday in the first televised debate before the July 4 general election. We analyse their best and worst moments of the evening.
Conservative Rishi Sunak and Labour's Keir Starmer faced-off in the first TV debate on Tuesday evening. Photo by belyaaa
Conservative Rishi Sunak and Labour's Keir Starmer faced-off in the first TV debate on Tuesday evening. Photo by belyaaa

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour challenger Keir Starmer went head-to-head Tuesday evening in the first televised debate before the July 4 general election. The hour-long program featured poignant questions from audience members on Britain’s economic situation, public health services and immigration, but ended up leaving voters with an even bigger question: 

What is worse, ‘a bad government’ or ‘an unknown government’ ?

With the Conservative Party trailing 20%-points behind Labour in most opinion polls, the debate was Starmer’s to lose. Yet, a Sky News survey showed that 51% of viewers thought Sunak performed better compared to 49% for his Labour Party rival Keir Starmer - a shining victory in light of the gloomy election forecasts 

What went well for Sunak, and how can both candidates improve ahead of the next debates.

Game plan:

Sunak: Convince voters that “bold” ideas are better than no ideas. So far in the campaign, the PM has thrown policy spaghetti on the wall in the hope that any of his imaginative proposals would resonate with voters. Reintroducing mandatory military service and closing university degrees are just some of his latest ideas to be swiftly rejected by the public. Sunak knows he is grasping at straws, so in Tuesday’s debate he sat out to make it clear that “experimental” politics are at the very least better than Labour’s non-existent politics: you might not like it, but I have a plan”, the PM said about his less-than-successful plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. 

Starmer: Make it clear that any government is better than a Tory government. Starmer had the easier job of the evening. Simply put, all he had to do was pick a public service at random, and explain why Conservatives have wrecked it: "Imagine how you would feel waking up on July 5 to five more years of the Conservatives, five more years of decline and division, the arsonists handed back the matches," Starmer said in his closing argument. He topped off his attack with frequent references to Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss, whose short term in office he blamed for high inflation in the UK. 


Sunak: Overall, the debate was light on concrete policy proposals. However, in the sea of shallow answers, Sunak’s concise attack lines did emerge as the most memorable. ITV moderator Julie Etchingham had barely welcomed viewers before Sunak brought up Labour’s supposed plans to “increase taxes by 2000 pounds”. He went on to repeat the line a handful of times throughout the programme with Starmer only able to master a strained defense.

Starmer: Seemed to have the audience on his side as he garnered several laughs at Sunak’s expense. The PM’s attempt at explaining how NHS waiting lists are down “because they were higher before” triggered one of the biggest audience responses of the evening. Starmer appeared strongest when exposing the ridiculousness of Sunak boasting about Tory policy victories.

Improvements for next debate:

Sunak: Understand that ‘the grey vote’ won’t win him the election. While bolstering pensions, and mandating 18-year-olds to work in retirement homes could be well-received among the +75s, most voters in the UK still have their own teeth. In a country where the average age for first-time home buyers is 33 (35 in London), it is worth investigating if policy proposals outside “transformative” military service might strike a chord with younger voters. 

Starmer: Know the time limits, and dial down the barrister. The 45-second time limit for responses at the ITV debate received mixed responses from viewers. Particularly, Starmer seemed to struggle with providing concise points within the structure. His approach was almost a bit too ‘barrister’-like, in the way he tried to ‘set the scene’ with each response: first providing some anecdotal evidence (usually in the form of his parent’s occupation), and then often selling a ‘nuanced’ strategy that ended up paling in efficiency compared to Sunak’s one-liners. It is for this reason, that Sunak pulled a slim victory in Tuesday's debate.

Quote of the evening:

Sunak: Something, something.. “2000 pound taxes!”

Starmer: “My dad was a tool-maker.”


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