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Sunak vs Starmer: battle of the beige

The surprisingly tetchy ITV debate couldn’t conceal the unbearable nothingness of the two technocrats.

Fraser Myers

Fraser Myers
Deputy editor

Topics Politics UK

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For a debate between two near identikit politicians, last night’s clash on ITV between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer was surprisingly ill-tempered. The Tory leader was often tetchy. At times, the Labour leader seemed outright disdainful of his opponent. Presenter Julie Etchingham genuinely struggled to keep order amid the squabbling. But what were they fighting over exactly?

No one watching the debate will be much the wiser. Viewers polled by YouGov found it to be ‘frustrating’, ‘vague’ and ‘boring’.

Sunak had lots of ‘ideas’, but none that anyone expects to be implemented. The audience groaned and even laughed at his proposal for an ersatz national service. He will have been gutted not to have had the chance to present a PowerPoint on his plan to put fly-tippers in prison, or to fine utility companies who botch pavement repairs. Sunak’s pitch was to be next week’s Apprentice team leader, not to run a proud nation.

Starmer, on the other hand, preferred to point to the ‘chaos and division’ of the past 14 years than talk about his own plans. This worked, to a point. Sunak not only avoided defending the record of his four predecessors in Downing Street, he also struggled to stick up for his own two largely wasted years in office. He said he would cut taxes, though the tax burden has risen on his watch. He said he’d cut NHS waiting times, though these too have gone up.

Starmer delighted in reeling off the list of Tory failures. The trouble is, his own ‘solutions’ to the UK’s problems all seemed to amount to him becoming prime minister. Neither Sunak nor Etchingham managed to draw out any further details. When pressed multiple times on how he would resolve the ongoing junior-doctors’ strikes – critical to tackling the NHS backlog – Starmer simply repeated the need for them to be resolved: ‘We’ve got to resolve them and for months and months and months the prime minister hasn’t resolved them.’

Starmer’s vagueness came back to bite him when he clashed with Sunak over taxes. The Tory PM (falsely) claimed 12 times that Labour is planning to raise £2,000 in additional tax from the average household. Starmer dismissed this as ‘absolute rubbish’, though he struggled to debunk it on air. Since then, Labour spinners have gone all out in branding Sunak a ‘liar’ who cannot be trusted. This is a bit rich coming from a party that has spent months falsely claiming that the Tories are planning to immediately abolish national insurance and, by extension, decimate the state pension.

In the ITV debate, both tried to present themselves as the ‘adult’ in the room, as the more able technocrat, though in slightly different ways. Sunak retreated to his slogan ‘clear plan… bold action’, whereas Starmer retreated to proceduralism and legalism. One of the few meaningful splits of the night was over the European Court of Human Rights. Sunak said he would be prepared to leave it, if it stands in the way of his Rwanda policy or of deporting illegal migrants. Starmer instead waffled about international law and Britain’s standing on the world stage. ‘We will not pull out of international agreements and international law which is respected the world over’, he said. Keeping in the good books of the so-called international community of supranational bodies and NGOs, in other words, should take priority over the national interest.

This was Starmer’s clearest answer of the night and a reminder that the Labour leader is a consummate globalist. This is a man who once said he preferred discussing politics with the global elites in Davos, than in the House of Commons, the beating heart of our democracy. Remarkably, he briefly managed to make the jet-setting, Silicon Valley-loving millionaire Sunak look relatively grounded by comparison.

Perhaps the most unsettling moment of the debate came when the pair were asked if they would use private healthcare to help a loved one languishing on an NHS waiting list. Starmer insisted that he would stick with the NHS, no matter what. This was supposed to display his fealty to the UK’s national religion, but it jarred badly. Is Starmer really such an ideologue that he would sooner let a family member die than go private? Or was he, a wealthy man who can clearly afford health insurance, just flat-out lying? This is hardly the first time our PM-in-waiting has shown himself to be slippery.

All in all, the ITV debate was a curious spectacle. There was plenty of sound and fury, but very little substance. Starmer and Sunak were essentially battling it out to implement slightly different flavours of technocracy. Anyone hoping for genuine political change at this election will have to look elsewhere.

Fraser Myers is deputy editor at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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