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June 5th 2024

What is the point of the leaders’ debates? Well, that depends on which leader you are.

For Keir Starmer, the point is to reinforce the central message of his campaign: we’ve changed, this country needs to change and I’m not mad - promise.

For Rishi Sunak, the point is somewhat different and harder to land: I know everything has been rubbish and your mortgage has gone up and you’re sick of all this but that other fella is deranged and I have a plan.

Fundamentally, Rishi needed this debate to move the polls. Starmer needed it not to.

The jitters were clear from the start - neither leader sounded completely confident in their opening statements, but it must be said that Sunak’s was shakier and appeared more nerve-wracked than Starmer’s.

Sunak scored an early win by relentlessly - monotonously - delivering sharp lines about supposed tax rises under a future Labour Government. But as soon as questions ventured into the state of British public services, the PM came quite unstuck. He appeared both petulant and dismissive when answering questions on the NHS and his habit of staring down at his shoes while Starmer answered questions didn’t work for him. He alternated this with shouting and hectoring in a petulant manner that did little to dispel the notion that he finds it very hard to deal with challenge.

Rishi Sunak’s central argument - as elicited and illustrated by the questions on education - is this: everything good over the last fourteen years I will own, everything bad is nothing to do with me guv. That is a weak argument, objectively. And it doesn’t really work.

That said, Rishi successfully landed the idea that Labour will raise tax on ‘ordinary families’ by £2000. He managed to do so because Keir was far too slow to interject and correct him. And that is a blow to Labour, in terms of narrative if not in terms of reality.


Things got a little spicy on defence - it was interesting to see Starmer finally lose his temper with Sunak when accused of making Britain less safe. The line ‘are you calling the Crown Prosecution Service an extremist organisation?’ was one of his best retorts. The reality is that Labour’s very successful defence day earlier this week, and the showcasing of an incredibly impressive set of candidates who are veterans, cements the degree to which this attack on Labour has been reasonably neutered.

Back during the leadership campaign - when Rishi faced Liz Truss, and lost - part of Sunak’s issue was how aggressive and dismissive he came across. The truth is that he is still a man who believes he is cleverer than everyone else. And it comes across in exactly the same way as when he lost a popularity contest to a woman defeated by a lettuce. It is brittle. It is unattractive.

But his message discipline is impressive. His messaging is brutal. And in the end, it might not matter that Keir Starmer is a good and serious person - these are not necessarily the attributes one needs to score a victory in modern British politics.

What is remarkable, in its own way, is that Rishi clearly hasn’t given up. Something in him means that the Prime Minister has decided not only to fight but to fight dirty - he will use every tool available to him, clean or filthy, to fight to the end. One sort of admires him for it. Even though it isn’t going to work.

In the end, Rishi Sunak needed Keir Starmer to lose this debate. It was pretty even really. Which means that Rishi Sunak lost it. And not just because the audience burst into laughter when he claimed that his central national service policy would be ‘transformational’ for young people. Not that surprising, really - turns out Rishi loses most things. In politics, at least. He’ll be happier in California. Time, as Sir Keir might say, to ‘turn a page’. For everyone’s sake.