Sunak and Starmer trade blows in first TV clash of election campaign

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer traded blows on the economy and the NHS as they faced off in the first TV debate of the 2024 election campaign.

In his opening pitch to voters on ITV, the Prime Minister sought to draw dividing lines with Labour as he claimed the party would “raid” pension pots and hike taxes.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir questioned the timing of the July 4 vote, arguing Mr Sunak had called a summer polling day because he “knows” inflation and energy prices will take a turn for the worse in winter.

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

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

First blood was drawn when the Tory leader challenged Sir Keir to say how he would resolve the 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 audience of the ITV debate.

“It’s somebody else’s fault,” Sir Keir said.

In his initial statement, Mr Sunak 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.”

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)

Mr Sunak will be hoping to move the dial against a backdrop of dire opinion poll ratings for the Tories, with recent YouGov analysis suggesting the party is heading for an electoral wipe-out.

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.”

The Tories insisted the debate would expose Labour’s “complete absence” of new ideas.

In a statement sent out minutes before opening statements, a Conservative spokesperson said: “Tonight will expose the Labour Party’s complete absence of any new ideas, any principles and ultimately, that they do not have a plan.

“Handing Labour the keys to No 10 would hit every working family with a £2,094 tax bill, punish pensioners with the retirement tax, bring in an amnesty for illegal immigrants and take our country back to square one.”