Punchy Rishi Sunak hits Labour's Keir Starmer with £2,000 tax rise claim in TV debate

The National watches from the spin room as Britain's Prime Minister attempts a fightback with a hard-nosed, albeit tetchy, first live debate appearance

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak showed he could turn around a potentially disastrous poll showing for the Conservatives with a pointed and coherent performance in the first general election debate.

Mr Sunak might have done enough to gain some momentum coming out of the first TV contest in Manchester, in which Labour leader Keir Starmer was at times left looking awkward.

That is perhaps because Mr Starmer is carrying a “Ming vase” that he dare not drop – a polling advantage that could land him a massive majority as long as his party does not trip and smash their priceless possession.

That lead came under some threat on Tuesday evening when a Savanta poll for The Daily Telegraph showed that the lead, at least in this poll, had closed to within 14 points.

£2,000 tax rise

Despite an awkward grin in the opening sequence, Mr Sunak swiftly launched some sharp darts at Labour’s tax plans that he said would cost £2,000.

It was curious that for a full 26 minutes of the hour-long debate the Labour leader failed to rebut the £2,000 charge, which relates to every working household over a four-year period, that the Prime Minister freely and frequently repeated.

It then felt that he had been prompted from outside to rebuff the accusation, calling it “absolute garbage”.

Taxation duel

The party leaders, who did not know what they would be asked, were posed a series of questions from the audience and had 45 seconds to answer them.

The first was posed by a woman from Huddersfield who was struggling so much with the cost of living that she would only do batch cooking at weekends to avoid turning on her oven during the week.

Mr Sunak said he had brought inflation under control, wages were growing and that his party would cut taxes but then brought up the £2,000 tax charge under Labour.

Mr Starmer, whose advisers later said he “clearly connected with the audience”, blamed former prime minister Liz Truss’ short administration for “crashing the economy”, but failed to deny the tax rise claim.

He also said the election had been called early because Mr Sunak knew that inflation and energy prices would rise dramatically in the autumn.

Applause and groans

Mr Starmer won the first applause when he claimed that his government would bring down National Health Service waiting times, while Mr Sunak attracted groans when he blamed delays on the junior doctors’ strike.

“So, it’s someone else’s fault,” Mr Starmer quipped.

Mr Sunak’s riposte of not wanting to raise “your taxes” to pay for the doctors’ 35 per cent pay rise demand attracted the first sustained applause.

A series of verbal tussles ensued, largely with Mr Sunak interrupting his opponent who repeatedly closed his eyes at the interjections.

Both men were repeatedly brought into line by the veteran ITV host Julie Etchingham, who told them to stop talking over each other.

'Start saving'

In a swift yes and no question, Mr Sunak said he would use private healthcare if he had a loved one in desperate need of an operation.

Mr Starmer said he would use the NHS, which was a tricky response given that his shadow health secretary would use the private system to clear the operations backlog.

Mr Sunak again struck on the taxation point when he claimed that there was “a retirement tax coming for pensioners” under a Labour government who would “put up taxes”.

He then struck home with the line: “If you feel that Labour are going to win, start saving.”

'Intolerable Gaza'

There was a short reference to the Israel-Gaza war which Mr Starmer called “intolerable”, saying he would make it his “solemn duty” to find a lasting resolution through the two-state solution.

Mr Sunak promised to provide more humanitarian aid but then attacked Mr Starmer on defence, saying Labour could not be trusted on “the country’s security”, to which his opponent muttered “shocking” and “desperate”.

In the continued sharp responses, Mr Sunak constantly accused Labour of having no plan for the country’s future, despite having 14 years to think about it.

Enter the spin room

It was significant that in the final seconds of the debate a team of Labour ministers marched into the press centre – nicknamed “the spin room” – to extol their leader’s debating skills.

“Rishi Sunak’s plans do not add up,” claimed shadow treasury minister John Ashworth.

Across the room the Conservative king of spin, Michael Gove, repeated almost exactly the same words about the Labour leader, before adding that Mr Starmer’s debate performance “was the worst I’ve ever seen”.

Mr Gove was naturally overstating the case, but while he was at times tetchy, it was Mr Sunak who appeared to land the more significant blows that might have the all-important cut-through to the millions of viewers and help him avoid a historic election defeat.

Who won?

A snap YouGov poll after the debate gave Mr Sunak a slim edge, 51 per cent to 49 per cent, with the premier coming out on top on tax, and narrowly on immigration and being “prime ministerial”.

But with the UK facing a historic cost of living crisis and Mr Sunak struggling to defend his Tories’ record over 14 years in office, Mr Starmer’s lead in key areas including likeability, the National Health Service and education illustrated why national surveys put his Labour Party on course for power.

For Mr Sunak, “it’s not the knockout blow” he needs to turn his campaign around, YouGov’s director of political analytics, Patrick English, told Sky News.

Updated: June 05, 2024, 10:16 AM