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Sunak, Starmer clash in UK election TV debate

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer sparred on Tuesday night over tax, the cost of living, and the country’s creaking health system in an inconclusive televised debate ahead of the July 4 general election.

The election is expected to make one of them the country’s next leader.

Sunak tried to boost his centre-right party’s dismal outlook by urging voters to back the stability of a continued Conservative government. Starmer hoped to cement his status as favourite by arguing that Britain desperately needs change.

Both acknowledged the country’s many problems, from fraying public services to a broken immigration system. But neither could say outright, when asked, where the money would come from to fix them.

Sunak stressed his stewardship of the economy, which has seen inflation fall to just over 2 per cent from a peak of more than 11 per cent in late 2022.

He said should stick with him because his “clear plan” for the economy was working.

Starmer said the election was a choice between more “chaos and division” with the Conservatives and “turning the page and rebuilding with Labour”.

Polls currently give centre-left Labour a double-digit lead. To win, Starmer must persuade voters who previously backed the Tories that Labour can be trusted with the UK’s economy, borders, and security.

Speaking in front of a live audience on a sleek, futuristic set at the studios of broadcaster ITV in Salford, northwest England, both Starmer and Sunak appeared nervous. Voters may have got the impression their choice is between two cautious and rather dull managers.

Both stuck to familiar themes. Sunak argued Labour would raise taxes because “it’s in their DNA”.

Sunak said he would stop people making dangerous journeys to the UK in small boats by sending asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda, and suggested he’d be willing to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights if its court blocked the deportations.

Starmer dwelled on the Conservatives’ record during 14 years in power, especially the chaotic last few years, which saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson ousted amid money and ethics scandals.

Successor Liz Truss, elected by party members, rocked the economy with her uncosted tax-cutting plans and quit after 49 days. Sunak took over, without a national election, in October 2022.

“This government has lost control. Liz Truss crashed the economy. We cannot have five more years of this,” Starmer said.

A note of the personal crept in when Starmer took a dig at ex-banker Sunak’s wealth, saying his own father had been a factory worker and claiming Sunak did not understand the financial worries facing working-class people, according to AFP.

All 650 seats in the House of Commons are up for grabs on July 4. The leader of the party that can command a majority – either alone or in coalition – will become prime minister.

Both contenders said they would maintain Britain’s close ties with the United States if Donald Trump wins in November.

“The special relationship transcends whoever fills the post of prime minister and president,” Starmer said.

Sunak agreed that “having a strong relationship with our closest partner and ally in the United States is critical for keeping everyone in our country safe.”

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