General Election

General Election: First TV debate could be Rishi Sunak's last chance

Rishi Sunak
Will Sunak land a blow on Starmer?

With the Tories reeling from a horrific news cycle and polls, Rishi Sunak needs a big boost from the first TV debate with Keir Starmer. Paul Krishnamurty assesses his chances...

  • Sunak under pressure after Farage u-turn

  • Attacks on Labour yet to cut through

  • Starmer bound to play it safe

  • Read our UK General Eleciton live blog here

The news goes from grim to catastrophic for Rishi Sunak. The polls are worsening, sending ever stronger signals of a Tory wipeout. Now to compound matters, Nigel Farage has just announced a dramatic u-turn and will stand for Reform in Clacton. As I write the odds about the Conservatives winning fewer than 50 seats are crashing to new lows.

The Prime Minister needs a break. Something to change the narrative and political weather. This first TV debate is his chance.

Setting the terms of election debates is an underestimated advantage for any Prime Minister. If you don't agree to the terms, they can't go ahead. That is also true of the opposition, but doing so would likely be seem as bottling it.

2010 showed transformative power of debates

Unlike the USA, which has had TV debates since the early 1960s, the first in Britain wasn't until 2010. Gordon Brown was PM, staring at a massive defeat. David Cameron was widely assumed to be headed for majority. A head-to-head between the two would most likely have reinforced the Tory advantage. Most voters had decided it was time for a change and Cameron was the obvious vehicle to get it.

But the terms Brown agreed to were different. Rather than a head-to-head, our first ever TV debate was three-way, with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg also invited. History turned on this moment. The relatively unknown Clegg played a blinder, usurping Cameron as the change vehicle. The election suddenly became a three-way fight, Cameron was ultimately denied a majority and the Lib Dems entered into a coalition government.

With Tories holding power in the three election cycles since, head-to-heads have become rare. Cameron never went head-to-head with Ed Miliband, ensuring the anti-government vote would split. Nor did Theresa May with Jeremy Corbyn. She didn't even turn up for one debate, sending Amber Rudd instead.

This isn't Sunak's election debate debut

In 2018, Boris Johnson did go up against Corbyn, who had become very unpopular, while dodging another event. In his place, up stepped the little-known, recently appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Rishi Sunak. He fared well enough to spark what turned out to be a cruelly unlucky gamble for next Tory leader.

The context tomorrow is wholly different. His government are the least popular on record. His party could literally be wiped out four weeks from now. Sunak needs to land some big punches on Keir Starmer and raise the alarm bell about a Labour government. He needs to send a crystal clear message that (a) Labour present a threat, (b) only a vote for the Tories can stop them and (c) a vote for Reform will make it more likely.

Expect these attacks on Labour

If nothing else, Sunak can reliably repeat a message. Some would say monotonously and unconvincingly so. Expect the following repetitive lines of attack.

1) Labour will put up taxes.

2) Starmer is a lefty lawyer, soft on criminals, terrorists and Jimmy Saville.

3) Labour are soft on national security, and Starmer must be, given his past support for Corbyn.

4) Labour will attack the motorist, and have an agenda to make driving unaffordable.

5) Continuing the theme of (4), far-Right conspiracy theories about left-wing environmentalist agenda and even about taxing meat.

We know all this because it has long been trialled and is now the staple of right-wing politics everywhere. But will it work?

Formbook points to Starmer

The odds must be against it. In their one head-to-head setting, Starmer frequently wins PMQs. He's a good debater, as one would expect of a KC, but this is more determined by the material.

He is attacking a government who are overseeing failure on multiple fronts, including on their own terms and issues. Voters may well fear Labour tax rises and their record on immigration, but the Tories are already doing the same or worse on both.

Starmer has spent five years preparing meticulously for this election. He has ruthlessly discarded Corbyn and his supporters, demonstrating at every turn that he is different. The most damning charge Sunak will be able to land is "Captain Flip-Flop".

Reform voters are Sunak's target audience

The 'lefty North London lawyer' attacks might resonate because that stereotype is long baked into popular discourse. But one must ask why that or the Corbyn lines would work now, when they demonstrably haven't during the years in which Starmer has built his lead.

Realistically this narrative is aimed at Reform voters, or 2019 Tories still undecided. After all, they seem to have been the sole focus of Sunak's campaign so far.

On the other side, Starmer will play it safe, as he has throughout. He can take his pick of government failures to rail against. Simply repeat the message that the majority audience already believe, then repeat again. The government has failed. They treated you with contempt over Partygate and are still doing so. It's time for change and Labour has a plan.

Personal attacks could rebound on Sunak

In addition, judging by their comments this weekend, it seems they going after Sunak's former career in finance, raising questions about his hedge fund aggressively betting against RBS during the financial crisis of 2007/8. The details of this are far too convoluted for the average voter, but this has two purposes for Starmer. First, to paint Sunak as a rich, out-of-touch banker who 'bet against Britain'. Second, to neutralise the inevitable charges that Labour crashed the economy, leaving the Tories to pick up the pieces.

Will any of this move the needle? I'm very doubtful. Besides that first ever debate in 2010, I don't recall any debate since really changing anything. Those deemed to have 'won' or performed well haven't always gone on to succeed at the ballot box. The same is true of US elections. Indeed, one of my Five Lessons to Learn from Past Elections is to not overestimate these debates.

The most significant outcome, bar some unforeseen catastrophe, would be a really solid Sunak performance. One that overshadowed the Farage noise. But most likely is we'll see the same trend as seen in the polls. Little or no change. The country will still believe it's time for a change.

Now read General Election: What constitutes a Tory wipeout and how bad could it get?


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