Starmer says Sunak’s £2,000 tax claim is ‘garbage’ in heated TV election clash

Sir Keir Starmer rejected as “absolute garbage” Rishi Sunak’s claim that he would hike taxes by £2,000 as the two leaders clashed on the economy, immigration and the NHS in their first TV election debate.

The Labour leader said the attack line was “nonsense” after the Prime Minister deployed it repeatedly in the heated showdown on ITV.

In his opening pitch to voters on ITV, the Prime Minister sought to draw dividing lines with his rival as he claimed Sir Keir would “raid” pension pots and raise taxes on families.

Meanwhile, the Labour leader questioned the timing of the election, accusing Mr Sunak of calling a summer polling day because he “knows” inflation and energy prices will take a turn for the worse later in the year.

General Election campaign 2024
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Sir Keir mockingly dubbed the Prime Minister “the British expert on tax rises” after Mr Sunak’s repeated his insistence that Sir Keir would increase the burden.

The two leaders were reprimanded by debate host Julie Etchingham for talking over each other following opening skirmishes over the state of the public finances.

First blood was drawn when the Tory leader challenged Sir Keir to say how he would resolve the Government’s long-running dispute with junior doctors, earning a round of applause as he said he would not offer a 35% pay rise.

But Sir Keir drew audience laughter as he ridiculed the Prime Minister over his claim that NHS waiting lists were improving, saying: “They were 7.2 million, they’re now 7.5 million. He says they are coming down and this is the guy who says he’s good at maths.”

Mr Sunak then blamed industrial action, eliciting groans from the crowd and prompting his rival to hit back: “It’s somebody else’s fault.”

In his initial statement at the ITV debate, the PM had said: “Beyond raising your taxes and raiding your pensions, no-one knows what Labour would actually do.

“But you know what I would do? I’ll cut your taxes, protect your pension and reduce immigration.”

Expanding on the accusation later in the show during a debate about climate change, Mr Sunak said Sir Keir would “reverse all of the changes I’ve made” which would “cost everyone and you thousands of pounds.”

The Labour leader initially declined to engage with the claim, but eventually said: “This £2,000 he keeps saying it’s going to cost is absolute garbage.”

Sir Keir said: “This election is all about a choice. More of the chaos and division we’ve seen for the last 14 years or turning the page and rebuilding with Labour.

“I have ambition for our country. I have a practical plan to deliver it.”

General Election campaign 2024
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Elsehwere, Mr Sunak offered his strongest suggestion yet that he could be willing to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) if the Government’s stalled Rwanda deportation plan remains blocked by the courts.

He said: “If I am forced to choose between securing our borders and our country’s security, or a foreign court, I’m going to choose our country’s security every single time.”

Sir Keir said the UK risked becoming a “pariah” state if it left international conventions.

Mr Sunak will have been aiming to move the dial against a backdrop of dire opinion poll ratings for the Tories, with recent analysis suggesting the party is heading for an electoral wipeout.

Snap verdicts following the debate marginally brightened the PM’s hopes, with YouGov polling showing 51% of people thought he performed best overall during the show, as compared with 49% voting for Sir Keir.

The Prime Minister pointed to his record as chancellor during the pandemic as he asked people to judge him by his actions.

“Every week when I’m out and about, someone comes up to me and tells me how furlough saved their family, saved their home, because that’s who I am,” he said.

Sir Keir suggested the wealthy Prime Minister did not understand the plight facing hard-pressed households.

Referring to his own childhood, he said: “I do know the anguish of worrying, when the postman comes with a bill, what is that bill going to be, can I pay it? I don’t think the Prime Minister quite understands the position that you and other people are in.”

In other key developments on Tuesday:

-Sir Keir said he supported processing asylum claims in third countries “if that was possible to do it in compliance with international law”.

– Mr Sunak said he would use private health care if he had a loved one on a long waiting list for surgery, while Sir Keir said he would not.

– Mr Sunak said he had discussed whether he or Gareth Southgate “had the worst job in Britain” when he met with the England football manager.

– Both Mr Sunak and Sir Keir said the UK’s special relationship with the US would continue if Donald Trump re-enters the White House.

– Nigel Farage was doused in milkshake earlier on campaign trail following his rally in Clacton.

Mr Sunak appealed to wavering voters in his closing statement at the ITV debate, following right-wing firebrand Mr Farage’s shock announcement that he would take over as leader of Reform UK and stand as a candidate.

“Either Starmer or I will be your prime minister and a vote for anyone else makes it more likely that it will be him,” he said.

Sir Keir told voters he would not pretend there was a “magic wand that will fix everything overnight” but would offer practical solutions to the problems faced by the nation.

“Imagine how you would feel waking up on July 5 to five more years of the Conservatives,” he said.

“Five more years of decline and division. The arsonists handed back the matches.

“Now imagine turning the page with a Labour government that rolls up its sleeves and gets on with the job that puts the country back in your service.