Sunak Hits Labour on Tax But Struggles to Undermine Starmer

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak reached for a tried-and-tested Conservative weapon in his first UK election campaign debate with Keir Starmer, repeatedly warning that the Labour leader would raise taxes. But their heated prime-time TV clash showed up the prime minister’s own weaknesses as much as his opponent’s.

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Sunak accused Starmer of plotting a tax raid that would cost households £2,000 ($2,555) if Labour is elected on July 4. It was the premier’s go-to line, and his Tory party sent round a fund-raising email making exactly the same point. Starmer called it a “garbage” calculation based on made-up policies, and pointed out that the tax burden on Britons has soared under Sunak.

Polling of the debate’s viewers showed they thought it a close battle. A snap YouGov poll after the debate gave Sunak a slim edge, 51% to 49%, while a Savanta survey conducted entirely after the debate ended gave Starmer a 44% to 39% edge. A third poll, by JL Partners, gave Starmer an even wider 53% to 33% win.

For Sunak, “it’s not the knockout blow” he needs to turn his campaign around, YouGov’s director of political analytics, Patrick English, told Sky News.

Drilling down into the issues, YouGov found that the premier coming out on top on taxes, and narrowly beat Starmer on immigration and being “prime ministerial.” But with the UK facing an historic cost of living crisis and Sunak struggling to defend his Tories’ record over 14 years in office, Starmer’s lead in key areas including likability, the National Health Service and education illustrated why national surveys put his Labour Party on course for power. Savanta found Starmer won on every major issue, with wide margins on health care, the economy and honesty.

“Starmer wins on the detail, but Sunak is much closer in the most important ‘who won the debate’ metric,” Savanta’s political research director, Chris Hopkins, said. “Presentationally, it felt like the Prime Minister had the upper hand at times - in particular towards the end of the debate - and although our figures suggest he lost narrowly, he probably still outperformed expectations.”

The challenge facing Sunak was laid bare in another pollster’s deep-dive into the UK electorate that landed moments before the two leaders took to the stage. Survation’s analysis, based on interviews with about 30,000 people, put Labour on course for the biggest parliamentary majority in modern British political history, leaving the Conservatives facing an existential crisis.

The sudden announcement Monday that Nigel Farage — the anti-immigration populist and Brexit architect — would stand for his Reform UK party in the election could make future polls worse. Sunak had built a campaign strategy to stop right-wing Tory voters switching to Reform, including promising a tax break for pensioners and the reintroduction of compulsory national service.

But Sunak’s immediate problem Tuesday was how to tackle Starmer, whose Labour Party has built its huge poll lead by claiming the political center.

Sunak was at his strongest when doggedly repeating the tax line, trotting out the £2,000 figure which comes from a Tory document last month that the party said was based on “a series of formal Treasury and independent costings.” But the Treasury’s top civil servant, James Bowler, has written to the Labour Party saying it’s not accurate to describe the calculation as having been produced by the civil service — a letter published on X by a BBC journalist.

The prime minister also leaned heavily on the staple catchphrases of both the Tory campaign and his weekly sparring sessions with Starmer in the House of Commons.

“With Keir Starmer — apart from higher taxes — you don’t know what you’d get, and neither does he,” Sunak said. “No plan,” Sunak said repeatedly.

“He’s the British expert on tax rises,” Starmer retorted.

The problem for Sunak is that while attack lines on tax have worked for the Tories in the past, including when Boris Johnson led the party to a landslide defeat over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in 2019, Britain’s recent economic turmoil makes the current political dynamic very different.

A recent survey by polling firm More in Common found that Britons see about the same risk of a Labour government raising taxes as a Conservative one.

Starmer had his best moments criticizing the Conservatives’ 14-year record and pitching himself as the option for change. “The arsonists handed back the matches,” Starmer said of the idea that the Tories getting another term.

Some Sunak gaffes helped Starmer, including when the premier tried to argue that National Health Service waiting lists have come down. When the Labour leader pointed out they’re higher now than when Sunak promised to cut them, the audience laughed.

“I thought he was the guy who was meant to be good at maths,” Starmer said.

The YouGov and Savanta surveys bolster the view that on fixing stretched public services, it is Starmer and Labour that have the upper hand — with Sunak coming across as out of touch. Both were asked at one point if they would use private health care if they had a loved-one on a waiting list for surgery. Sunak said he would.

“No,” Starmer replied. “I don’t use private health. I use the NHS. That’s where my wife works, in one of the big hospitals; as I said it runs through my DNA.”

Sunak argued that the election should be about the future, rather than an analysis of the Conservative Party’s record. Yet despite the argument on tax, most Britons do expect taxes to rise to boost the NHS, schools and infrastructure — and polls suggest they overwhelmingly trust Labour to do it.

“We came into here in a strong position,” Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow secretary for work and pensions, said in the debate ‘spin’ room. “I think we leave in an equally strong position.”

Sunak and Starmer were also asked whether they would work with Donald Trump should he win the US presidency. Both said they would, with Sunak saying the UK-US relationship is vital for security and Starmer saying the relationship is “special” and “transcends” the particular leaders in office.

Unlike in the US, televised debates are only a recent tradition in British politics. The first was in 2010, when former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown agreed to three with then Conservative leader David Cameron and the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg.

Starmer and Sunak are due to go head-to-head again on June 26, but Tuesday’s debate will likely do little to shift the perception that the clashes have only a limited impact on the final result.

That leaves Sunak still searching for a game-changer before polling day. People familiar with the matter have said the premier may consider options including cutting inheritance tax or taking a tougher stance on the European Convention on Human Rights. The pact is blamed by right-wing Tories for preventing the government from adopting a harsher crackdown on immigration.

Asked if he would pull out of the ECHR, Sunak ducked the question but said he’d never let a “foreign court” intervene and that his plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda complies with the UK’s international obligations.

It was an answer that appeared directed at Farage’s Reform UK and Sunak’s battle to stop Tory voters from switching allegiance. But as the prime minister has done throughout the campaign, it left the door open for Starmer to claim the more moderate ground.

“If I’m prime minister, we will not pull out of international agreements,” Starmer said. “I want the UK to be a respected player on the global stage, not a pariah who doesn’t agree with international law.”

--With assistance from Asad Zulfiqar, Louise Moon, Conrad Quilty-Harper, Alex Morales, Reed Landberg and Andrew Atkinson.

(Updates with Savanta polling and comment starting in third paragraph.)

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