Sunak, Starmer clash in final TV debate before UK general election

Event in central city of Nottingham covered issues from health to immigration with polls afterwards suggesting a tie.

British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Mishal Husain pose on the day of BBC's Prime Ministerial Debate, in Nottingham, Britain
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, left, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with Mishal Husain ahead of the debate [Phil Noble/Pool via Reuters]

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer have faced off in their final televised debate ahead of the United Kingdom election, going head-to-head over issues from health to immigration and ethics, and struggling to be heard above a noisy protest outside.

The debate took place in the central city of Nottingham and represented Sunak’s last big opportunity to give his right-wing Conservatives, who are trailing Labour by about 20 points, a fighting chance in the July 4 polls.

He accused Starmer of “taking people for fools” over Labour’s plans to reduce immigration, while Starmer accused Sunak, one of the country’s wealthiest men, of being “out of touch” and too rich to understand the concerns of most common Britons.

Sunak repeatedly urged voters not to “surrender” to Labour on everything from borders to taxes, while Starmer stressed that the election was an opportunity for the country to “turn the page” on 14 years of Conservative government dominated by austerity, Brexit and party infighting.

A snap YouGov poll said the debate, broadcast by the BBC with senior journalist Mishal Husain as the host, had been a tie, with both men on 50 percent.

As the event at Nottingham Trent University got under way, indistinguishable but loud shouting could be heard from pro-Palestinian protesters who had gathered outside.

Husain acknowledged the distraction and noted protest was part of the UK’s democracy.

Neither Starmer nor Sunak made any reference to the demonstration, which tapered off in the second half of the debate.

The two men also clashed over an election date betting scandal that has ensnared several senior Conservative politicians, as well as one Labour candidate who placed a bet against himself.

Starmer promised to “reset politics, so that politics returns to public service”, accusing Sunak of showing a lack of leadership over the furore.

Sunak, who promised to restore “integrity, professionalism and accountability” when he was named Conservative Party leader and prime minister in 2022, said he had been “furious” when he learned about the allegations.

“I’ve been crystal clear: Anyone who has broken the rules should not only face the full consequences of the law, I will ensure that they’re booted out of the Conservative Party,” he added.

But in a sign of the public’s growing disdain for its politicians, one audience member’s question – “Are you two really the best we’ve got?” – got loud applause.

The two leaders have met at several debates and public sessions with voters, increasingly focusing on who was better suited to lead the country.

Sunak’s campaign has struggled since he announced the election outside 10 Downing Street in torrential rain in May.

He has since run a lacklustre campaign, and his decision to leave other leaders and skip the main D-Day anniversary ceremony in northern France earlier this month caused uproar.

The Conservatives have been battling to win public confidence since it emerged that senior officials, including then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, broke COVID-19 lockdown rules to enjoy parties in Downing Street.

Their position deteriorated – and Labour’s poll lead rose sharply – after Sunak’s short-lived predecessor Liz Truss sent interest rates soaring and tanked the pound with unfunded tax cuts in October 2022.

The Conservatives are also under pressure from the hard-right Reform UK party, which has seen a spike in support since populist Nigel Farage took the helm. Polls suggest Farage, who has failed on seven previous occasions to become an MP, is on course to win in the east coast constituency of Clacton, beating the incumbent Conservative.

British voters are choosing 650 lawmakers for the House of Commons, and the leader of the party that secures a majority of seats, either alone or in coalition, will become prime minister.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies