Analysis

Who won the Sky TV leaders' election event? Rishi Sunak laughed at by audience but Keir Starmer struggles over Corbyn

It was a grim night for Rishi Sunak.

When Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer faced off at the first debate, it was testy, angry, but had little substance. Both men were able to filibuster due to the format, where too many subjects needed to be covered.

Taking part in Wednesday’s Sky leaders event, while there was still plenty of deflection, both men were pinned down on their previous statements, with both squirming as a result.

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Up first, Sir Keir struggled the most when challenged on his previous statements saying he wanted Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister. Unable to answer if he meant it, the Labour leader instead repeated “we weren’t going to win”, and tried to say it was about helping good colleagues. It was uncomfortable viewing, and the groans from the audience made it worse.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was booed or groaned at throughout the event.Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was booed or groaned at throughout the event.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was booed or groaned at throughout the event.

He was on far better ground when grilled on ripping up old pledges, an avenue of attack that could have easily unnerved him. Instead, Sir Keir referenced challenging times due to Tory mismanagement, and needing to take decisions that were country first, not about the party. While sounding cheesy, it went down well in the room.

He also performed strongly when pushed on the two-child benefit cap, explaining the manifesto would include an anti-poverty plan, and that he wasn’t going to make financial commitments the party couldn’t deliver. While framed as a callous decision, the audience accepted it was about tough choices, applauding his answer.

On tax, the Labour leader was less secure, repeatedly dodging questions about tax rises by answering there would not be “tax rises on working people”. This suggests a tax on the ultra-rich could be coming, which while likely popular, would open up a new line of Tory attack.

His best moment however came in response to a dad in the audience, concerned about the end of VAT exemption for private schools, which he claimed was harsh as it was “about the children”. Explaining it was about helping state schools, and removing an exemption, not bringing in a new tax, the audience again appreciated the answer.

It was an equally difficult start for the Prime Minister, who was confronted with his disastrous polling and how awful his campaign has been. Mr Sunak, smiling like a child told they’ve got a new book but it’s maths challenges, and admitted it had been a difficult 18 months. That may be true, but it didn’t explain how he would turn it around. Then asked about his D-Day decision, Mr Sunak said it made him “incredibly sad”.

He performed like a sad clown, smiling in the face of audience laughter at his answers over inflation, waiting times and his own decision making. If that wasn’t enough, they then booed him over comments blaming striking doctors for wait lists. Told net migration has doubled since Britain left the EU, Mr Sunak smiled and nodded. All he could do was agree.

Scores

It was a punishing and difficult night for Mr Sunak, who instead of talking about Labour, was forced to defend his own record.

In a campaign where Labour must simply focus on not messing up, it was a strong four out of five from Sir Keir.

For Mr Sunak, it was two out of five, and a night that felt like the end.

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