Stalemate TV debate It is unlikely that the election guide will be shifted

9 Min Read
Stalemate TV debate It is unlikely that the election guide will be shifted

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives at the ITV debate on Tuesday (Alamy)

6 minutes reading

The TV debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer is unlikely to have significantly shifted the dial for the undecided electorate, according to responses from a panel of voters from across the country.

The two party leaders went head-to-head for an hour on ITV last night, in the first televised debate covering everything from tax policy to immigration and the NHS.

With the Conservatives holding a double-digit lead over Labor in the polls just four weeks before the election, Sunak was under increased pressure to perform strongly. The Prime Minister was combative in his approach from the start, repeatedly attacking Starmer over his plans for taxes and immigration.

PoliticsHome collaborates with Thinks Insight and Strategy to gather views on the contest from 50 panellists from five battleground constituencies across the country over the course of the campaign. They all voted for the Tories or the Scottish National Party in 2019, but are now planning to vote for other parties or are not yet sure how they will vote on July 4.

Not a game changer

In total, about 20 people shared their thoughts on the debate after watching the whole thing or watching highlights. Their responses indicate that the event is unlikely to have a significant impact on overall public sentiment.

Alice, from Swindon South, didn’t watch the program last night and ‘didn’t even hear the debate was on’, but after catching up on the highlights thought it ‘didn’t achieve anything and didn’t give me any confidence personally’. .

Peter in Wokingham was watching a summary BBC news but “wasn’t particularly impressed with either person”.

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The respondents in the panel were fairly evenly divided as to who had ‘won’ the debate.

Of the fourteen who shared their views on who ‘won’ the head-to-head battle, seven thought Labor leader Starmer came out on top, while six thought Sunak did better and one was left undecided.

People who thought Starmer looked better felt he could relate better to the audience’s questions, while Sunak came across as ‘robotic’ or distant.

“I would say Starmer won because his approach was more authentic,” Gemma said in Bolton.

“If they were both at a party I’d say Starmer would be mingling with normal, down-to-earth people and Rishi would be with the people of importance and money. I think Rishi Sunak would be having a whiskey and Keir Starmer would be having a pint.”

On the other hand, those who felt Sunak was the strongest believed he gave more convincing answers than Starmer, who they said tended to avoid questions.

Fred in Wokingham, a Liberal Democrat target seat controlled by the Tories, thought it was “pretty close in terms of who won” and that “Starmer had missed an opportunity”.

He explained: “When Sunak talked about Rwanda he sounded uncomfortable, but I don’t think Starmer offered a clear solution or a strong alternative.”

Tom in Bolton West thought the Labor leader had “simply” won.

“Sunak’s wild mud-slinging approach ran out of steam and Keir Starmer finished stronger.”

However, Claire in Nuneaton, a seat many consider a key constituency, thought Sunak had “more substance in what he said” while Starmer “seems more defensive and less clear and precise” about what he plans to do.

The response from the Thinks Insight panelists mirrors what we saw in the snap polls conducted last night, with voters quite divided on which politician they preferred.

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a YouGov A poll published immediately after Tuesday night’s debate showed people thought Sunak was the best performer, 51 to 49 percent.

However, a Savannah The poll published on Wednesday saw Starmer winning with 44 per cent, compared to Sunak’s 39 per cent. JL Partners gave Starmer a 20 percent lead when asked who performed best (53 versus 33 percent).

The Tory tax attack happened, but already there are doubts

In the hour-long debate, Sunak frequently repeated claims that Labor would increase taxes by £2,000 based on the costs revealed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt last month.

Starmer was slow to deny this claim, although he did say in the second half of the debate that the figures are ‘garbage’, a term that shadow minister Jonathan Ashworth repeated in his comments to the media after the debate concluded.

Shadow ministers and Labor candidates today accused the Prime Minister of lying to the public about the claim.

The figure was already highly controversial because it is based on the assumptions of political advisers and not on truly independent officials. On Wednesday morning, the BBC shared a letter from the most senior official at the Treasury to Labour, which said the figures “should not be presented as if they were produced by the civil service.”

According to the Thinks Insight analysis, the £2,000 figure was a line that really stuck with panellists throughout the debate, with several noting that Starmer did not immediately deny the claim.

However, after this morning’s developments, it is noticeable that the figures are being questioned.

“Starmer did not really push back on Sunak’s continued claim that Labor would increase taxes by £2,000,” said Karen in Nuneaton, who said the debate “reinforced doubts and fears about Labor being a high-tax party”.

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Similarly, Reena in Wokingham was also concerned. “If Labor are going to raise taxes by another £2,000 – and they don’t deny they are going to do that – what are we going to do?!”

James in Nuneaton pointed out the additional reporting from the BBCand noted that the Conservatives’ figure estimates are “based on much worse scenarios”.

“For me, it’s about not being baffled by the headlines; they can always be distorted and manipulated,” he said.

Three of the seats where the Thinks Insight panel participants are based are controlled by the Tories and are targets for Labour. They are Nuneaton, Bolton West and Swindon South.

One of these, Wokingham, is controlled by the Conservatives and in the crosshairs of Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats. The fifth, Airdrie and Shotts, is a seat in the Scottish National Party that Labor hopes to win.

PoliticsHome has exclusive access to the Thinks Insight and Strategy Election Diaries 2024. Over the next five weeks, 50 swing voters from five constituencies across the UK will share what they see and hear about the general election campaign, and what it means to them. There will be regular updates here and on the Thinks website, and the diarists’ views will feature in PoliticsHome’s coverage. You can read more information about the diaries here.

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