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Sunak and Starmer Spar in First Election Debate

In the much-anticipated initial televised debate of the UK general election campaign, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer engaged in a fervent exchange over pivotal issues such as the economy, taxation, immigration, and the National Health Service (NHS). 

The debate, held in Salford on Tuesday night, saw both leaders adopt combative stances, frequently interrupting each other and resorting to personal attacks as they endeavored to win over undecided voters ahead of the July 4th election. 

Economy and Taxes 

Sunak highlighted the recent reduction in inflation to 2% and asserted that his economic strategy "is working." He repeatedly warned that a Labour government would mean "£2,000 higher taxes for every working family," a claim Starmer dismissed as based on "fictitious policies." The Treasury has since refuted Sunak’s assertion. 


Both leaders affirmed they do not intend to raise income tax, national insurance, or VAT, but clashed over Labour's proposed abolition of tax breaks for private schools to fund 6,500 new teachers. Sunak defended the "freedom" for parents to choose private education, while Starmer argued it was a "difficult decision" to prioritise state school funding. 

NHS and Healthcare 

The debate grew particularly contentious over the NHS and the ongoing junior doctors' strike. Starmer criticised the government's handling of NHS staff, while Sunak attributed long waiting lists to the strike, claiming the numbers were previously higher and are now decreasing. 


On the divisive issue of immigration, Sunak defended his controversial Rwanda asylum plan as a deterrent, while Starmer expressed openness to processing claims in a third country if legal. Both leaders accused each other of being excessively lenient on immigration.  

Despite the heated exchanges and frequent interruptions, neither leader delivered a decisive blow nor introduced significant new proposals. Although Sunak’s Conservative Party currently trails Labour by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls, a survey conducted after the debate suggested that Sunak had a slight edge over Starmer (51% to 49%), providing a potential boost for the Conservatives. With several more debates scheduled, both leaders will need to refine their messaging and articulate clear visions for addressing pressing issues such as the cost-of-living crisis, public services, and immigration.

The next general election TV debate is on June 7th at 7:30pm on BBC 1, and will feature leading figures from Britain’s largest seven political parties.  

Ditipriya Acharya,

Senior Media, Marketing and Communications Officer

References and Further Reading: 



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