Election debate verdict: Swinging Sunak catches Starmer on tax — but prompts ‘liar’ counter-attack

There were some big questions going into the first TV election debate on Tuesday evening: how would Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak interact with so much at stake (and no longer inhibited by parliamentary pleasantries)? How would Starmer handle the burden of his frontrunner status in such a public format? Would either leader stumble into some debate-defining gaffe? Would Starmer’s precious Ming Vase slip from his fingers? Would Sunak get caught by cameras staring into the abyss? Could either competitor manage a knockout blow? How would they deal with the obligatory jokey question?

But above all: with still over a month to go until polling day, would the debate prove anything more than an insubstantial pageant?

Of course, as often tends to be the case with these election scraps, the defining feature was the sclerotic format. Each segment — from the cost of living to immigration, tax, climate change and more — was prompted by an audience question; with an issue broached, Starmer and Sunak were each given 45 seconds to respond. A bit of to-and-fro would commence, allowing for disagreements to be hashed out. But each contribution was still confined, strictly indeed, to three-quarters of a minute.

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In sum, the quick-fire format lent itself to the prime minister’s chosen debate strategy: to pin Starmer down with fastidious follow-up attacks, sowing seeds of doubt about Labour’s plans. The Conservative campaign has so far made a great deal of Starmer’s purported shiftiness when challenged — this debate was Sunak’s chance, finally, to take the Labour leader to task. After all, the PM is used to Starmer’s hostile questioning — a consequence of their weekly exchanges over the commons despatch box. This was Sunak’s turn to assume the role of interrogator. 

But the PM does also have some experience in this regard. His strategy yesterday reflected his ill-fated appearances versus Liz Truss during the 2022 Conservative leadership contest: behind in the polls, the PM again tried to sound peppy and high-energy; the risk is it comes off petulant and tetchy. 

With all said and done, however, it would seem that Sunak’s gambit paid off. The PM’s insistence that Labour’s plans for the country are not costed — and would equate to a £2,000 tax rise for the average earner — has dominated the post-debate conversation. 

ITV’s debate moderator, Julie Etchingham, repeatedly reminded the PM that the debate would turn to tax in a later segment; but the prime minister was relentlessly on message — and Starmer, at times, seemed a little flummoxed. Eventually, the Labour leader dismissed the PM’s claim as “absolute garbage” — but only after having missed myriad other opportunities to squash the claim. By then, the £2,000 tax jibe was out in the aether. 

The Labour leader, for what it’s worth, was also on feisty form — but his attacks were focussed on an array of fronts. While Sunak referenced his £2,000 claim in just about every debate segment, Starmer struggled to stress a single message. 

As such, that Starmer and Sunak’s confrontation on tax has dominated the post-debate discourse would suggest a narrative victory for the prime minister. Barely 10 minutes after the debate ended, the Labour press office shot out a release labelling Sunak’s tax claim a “lie”. “Labour will not put up income tax, national insurance or VAT”, the press missive insisted. It was a tacit admission that their candidate had not come down hard enough on the claim in the debate. 

And the row has now rolled into the next morning, prompting Labour to release a letter from Treasury permanent secretary James Bowler. Throughout the debate, Sunak had repeatedly insisted that Labour’s policies had been costed by “independent Treasury officials” — what he failed to mention, however, was that the assumptions informing the calculations were conjured by political appointees. 

In a letter to shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones, Bowler wrote: “As you will expect, civil servants were not involved in the production or presentation of the Conservative Party’s document ‘Labour’s Tax Rises’ or in the calculation of the total figure used”, adding: “The £38bn figure used in the Conservative Party’s publication includes costs beyond those provided by the Civil Service”.

The obvious question now is whether Bowler’s substantial rebuttal will cut through as much as Sunak’s rhetorical onslaught last night. Moreover, having had their main attack-line rubbished by the very same civil servants Sunak insists penned it, will the Conservatives continue to make the £2,000 case?

YouGov’s snap post-debate poll found that 53 per cent of viewers believed Sunak performed best during the segment on tax — including 87 of viewers who voted Conservative in 2019 (the PM’s primary audience). Going off these numbers alone, it’s difficult to see Sunak letting up. 

Nor do YouGov’s other findings make especially easy reading for the Conservatives. Yes, the pollster found that 51 per cent of viewers believed Sunak won the debate — but the underlying numbers are arguably more revealing. The snap poll found that Keir Starmer came off as more trustworthy (49 per cent to Sunak’s 39 per cent); more likeable (50 per cent to 34 per cent); and more in touch with ordinary people (66 per cent to 17 per cent). 

The Labour leader won the segments on the cost of living (51 per cent to 38 per cent), the NHS (61 per cent to 28 per cent), education (52 per cent to 31 per cent); and climate change (48 per cent to 24 per cent). Sunak just edged Starmer on immigration (45 per cent to 42 per cent) and, of course, on tax. 

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In the end, both leaders have good reason to feel happy after the debate. Starmer made no major debate-defining slip-ups; his advisers might have preferred the Labour leader to be firmer of Sunak’s tax claims, but party spokespeople are more than making up for his relative quiet this morning. After all, Starmer’s foremost task last night was not to throw away his lead; on those terms, he succeeded. 

And the Labour leader said “change” plenty of times, oh and “Liz Truss” too (thrice in the first five minutes by my count), so it’s far from all bad. Sunak, conversely, didn’t mention Jeremy Corbyn once — which feels like a missed opportunity.

Starmer’s debate strategy ultimately reflected his broader political persona: boring but effective enough.

Meanwhile, Sunak will be pleased that his tax claim has defined the debate fallout — and a close-run contest, as recorded by YouGov, may well benefit the figure furthest behind at this stage. On these terms, the PM outperformed his public perception pretty strongly; debate aside, YouGov records Sunak’s net favourability rating as -48. This figure is unlikely to improve after a single showing, but Sunak may think his performance has earned the Conservatives a right to be heard as the campaign progresses.

At worst, there was probably enough in the PM’s combative performance give to Conservative morale a timely, much-needed boost after a tough few days.

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website. Subscribe to our daily newsletter for all the latest election news and analysis.

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