UK Politics

General Election: Sunak stops the rot with debate victory

Rishi Sunak and Kier Starmer after TV debate 1
Sunak edged opening TV debate

Rishi Sunak went into the first debate with his campaign in crisis, urgently needing a win. A snap poll says he did enough to improve the narrative. Paul Krishnamurty concurs...

  • Sunak wins by tiniest of margins

  • Starmer fails to shine in debate format

  • Labour still on course for huge majority

  • Read our UK General Election live blog here

Previewing the first TV debate, I wrote that this might be Rishi Sunak's last chance to save what was turning into a catastrophic campaign. It is fair to say the PM managed it. According to YouGov's snap poll, he edged out Keir Starmer by 51-49%.

Market moves slightly in Tory favour

The reaction across Betfair markets was minimal. A Labour Majority remains overwhelming likely (93%) at odds of 1.071/14. But the odds about the Conservatives losing 201 or more seats drifted from 1.222/9 to 1.282/7. So too the ultimate wipeout target of them winning fewer than 50 seats, from 8.615/2 to 9.617/2. Given all this happened late at night, we may see further movement today, but the main signal hasn't changed - Labour are on course for a big majority.

However that the market has moved in this direction at all could also be seen as a small victory, given the MRP published just before the debate. 24 hours earlier, YouGov's survey had forecast a record Labour majority of 194, Survation's numbers were much worse. With this firm, the number was 324, with the Tories reduced to just 71 seats.

Sunak hammers tax scare message

There was nothing especially surprising in the debate and certainly no game changing moment. Sunak was fluent and disciplined, as on previous set-piece occasions, and succeeded in hammering home his predictable message. Labour will raise your taxes, bills and can't be trusted on national security. A message veterans will recall from every previous election campaign and Labour's perennial achilles heel.

Likewise, Starmer reiterated his message about 14 years of Tory failure across all major policy areas, and that it was time for a change. A fresh start. He didn't shine in the debate format, coming across rather wooden, but that was hardly a surprise.

I concur with the core poll finding that Sunak edged it. If only because he started with low expectations. Digging further into the poll numbers though, it doesn't make good reading for the PM, as seen below.

There are two positive takeaways for Sunak. First the overwhelming verdict from 2019 Tory voters. His campaign seems almost exclusively focused on this group and indeed, to avoid a wipeout he needs to get many more back in the Tory column. Secondly, the core message about Labour tax rises is sure to be amplified, repeated, by supportive newspapers.

Don't expect a lasting impact

The downside of that is the Tory claims on tax don't really stand up to scrutiny, as demonstrated in post-debate interviews. Plus, when the manifestos are published, I expect Labour's to be scrupulously costed in order to shut down this line of attack. Along with the lack of charisma, solid defence is Starmer's style.

There's always a risk of seeing what you want to see, confirming preconceptions, in these scenarios. However I don't see much reason to change my pre-debate view that it wouldn't change much, if anything. This event will be forgotten quickly as we move on to more debates, manifesto launches, other incidents on the campaign trail. The first 2019 debate didn't exactly mirror the eventual result or change the weather.

Farage noise unlikely to fade

The big question remains what happens with those 2019 Tory voters and to what extent Reform eat into that share. This took the attention away from Nigel Farage for a couple of hours but yesterday's most memorable event will be the Reform leader having milkshake thrown over him in Clacton. The optics are perfect for him - the authentic, truth-telling man of the people being silenced by intolerant opponents.

Farage thrives off this stuff and will doubtless continue to lead the press a merry dance. He'll get no end of opportunities over the next month to batter Sunak and the Tories on their record. The general dissatisfaction among the electorate ensures he'll receive a hearing. Especially from that critical group of 2019 Tory (and Brexit) voters.

Nevertheless, Sunak started the night with people speculating that he was such a liability that the Tories might have to dump him mid-campaign, to be replaced by Penny Mordaunt. A competent, solid performance put that to bed. He lives to fight another day.

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


New customers only. Bet £10 on the Betfair Sportsbook at odds of min EVS (2.0) and receive £50 in FREE Bet Builders, Accumulators or Multiples to use on any sport. T&Cs apply.

Prices quoted in copy are correct at time of publication but liable to change.