Sunak, Starmer face off in testy UK election debate

Britain's Rishi Sunak and Labour's Keir Starmer have gone head-to-head over how to boost the country's economy, with the prime minister accusing the opposition party of wanting to increase taxes if it wins power at the July election.

Both leaders stuck very much to their campaign lines in their first debate on Tuesday, weeks before voters cast their ballots in the general election, with Sunak saying only he had a plan to spur Britain's paltry economic growth and Starmer portraying the Conservatives as presiding over 14 years of economic chaos.

In a testy debate, a recent feature in Britain and one when more voters focus on politics, the two leaders battled over how to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, growing waiting lists in the public health service and improving the education system.

Asked by an audience member whether they understand how difficult it was for her to pay her household bills, Sunak said he would cut taxes, while Starmer accused the multi-millionaire prime minister of living in a "different world".

Sunak repeated the Conservatives' attack line that Labour would "put everyone's taxes up by 2000 pounds" ($A3800).

"Mark my words Labour will raise your taxes. (It) is in their DNA. Your work, your car, your pension, you name it, Labour will tax it," Sunak said.

Starmer did not deny the charge, but he later called the 2000 figure "nonsense". Labour has repeatedly said it will not raise income tax or National Insurance social security contributions if it wins power.

"My dad worked in a factory, he was a toolmaker, my mum was a nurse. We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up," the Labour leader told the audience member.

"So, I do know the anguish of worrying when the postman comes with a bill, what bill is it, am I going to be able to I pay it? I don't think the prime minister quite understands."

Later, the prime minister drew groans when he blamed growing waiting lists at the National Health Service on strikes, and was greeted by laughter when he said the numbers were going down "because they were higher" before.

But Sunak, whose campaign has yet to reduce Labour's lead of around 20 points in opinion polls, was on the attack, repeating the line that only his party had a plan, whereas voters did not know what Starmer intended to do if he won power.

The two-way leaders' debate comes a day after populist Nigel Farage said he was running in the election, a major blow to Sunak with the Brexit campaigner expected to peel off the votes of many right-wing voters - just the electorate the Conservatives are pursuing.

At an earlier campaign launch, Farage said he would be a thorn in the Conservatives' - and Labour's - side.

"I will be unafraid, despite what everybody says, despite what names they call me, they are so stupid it only encourages me really," he told dozens of supporters in southeastern England.

"Send me to parliament to be a bloody nuisance."