Keir Starmer won leaders debate despite being likened to 'political robot' as Rishi Sunak grilled on 'broken promises'

12 June 2024, 23:10 | Updated: 13 June 2024, 00:01

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer took part in a debate on Wednesday evening
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were both grilled by the host and members of the public in a leaders debate. Picture: Alamy

By Flaminia Luck

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer took part in the Sky News: The Battle for Number 10 debate this evening where they both faced a slew of difficult questions.

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Both party leaders were grilled by the host and members of the audience on key election issues such as taxes, the NHS and the cost-of-living crisis at the event held in Grimsby.

The Prime Minister was both laughed at and booed when answering questions on the Conservative Party's 14-year record but acknowleged public frustration.

The legacy of former Tory government still cast a shadow on Sunak who similarly failed to say what he had achieved while in office.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir was left briefly speechless when an audience member accused him of being a "political robot". He also clashed with a junior doctor over pay and with a father on private schools.

However, polling immediately after the debate found he came out on top among viewers.

'A punchy grilling': The Battle for Number 10: Analysed

LBC's political editor Natasha Clark shared her thoughts on tonight's debate which she described as "lively and quite revealing".

She said Keir had been "really battered" at the start by the host over his plans for taxes, but added she thought this was a "stronger performance" than the previous leadership debate last week.

She added Starmer got into a "muddle" over his relationship with Jeremy Corbyn who he has actively worked to distance himself from.

'Did not hold back'

She added the audience "did not hold back their punches" who she says were "more hostile" to Sunak than Starmer.

"He was even more heckled by the audience," she said, recalling a "spiky experience" with one member who booed him when speaking of striking doctors.

The audience also heavily challenged the Prime Minister on "broken promises" such as housing, stopping the boats and NHS waiting lists.

Natasha Clark also said Sunak seems "deflated" in contrast to the revelation tonight that he has an "appalling diet" and eats a lot of chocolate and sweets.

Rishi Sunak speaks with Beth Rigby and takes questions from the audience
Rishi Sunak was quizzed by Beth Rigby and the audience. Picture: Alamy

'Hasn't been easy'

Rishi Sunak started off his segment by saying it "hasn't been an easy 18 months" while also using his often-repeated line that the country has "turned a corner".

On his early departure from D-Day commemorations for which he has attracted heavy criticism for, Mr Sunak reiterated his apology for his "mistake".

"I was incredibly sad to have caused people hurt and upset, that was the last thing that I wanted to do. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me."

However, things took a difficult turn for the Prime Minister as he began to answer questions about the five pledges he made in January 2023.

He faced laughter from the audience when he said: "It (inflation) was always meant to come down over time."

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Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses the audience, during the Sky News election debate, in Grimsby, England, Wednesday June 12, 2024. (Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP)
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addresses the audience, during the Sky News election debate, in Grimsby, England, Wednesday June 12, 2024. (Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP). Picture: Alamy

Ian, a member of the audience with a 19-year-old daughter, asked him: "Why has your Government spoilt their hopes and dreams, and how do we know you won't do it again?"

In response, Mr Sunak reiterated that "inflation is down" and repeated his promise to "abolish stamp duty for first-time buyers like your daughter buying homes up to £425,000".

Later, he was challenged on health service staff shortages by an NHS worker who said he also once spent eight hours on a stretcher in an accident and emergency department corridor.

He also faced further questions about the NHS, with waiting lists up to 7.54 million from the 7.21 million level when the pledge was made.

"We've not made as much progress on cutting waiting lists as I would have liked," the Prime Minister said.

"That was something that I was keen to do, and it has proved more difficult for a number of reasons, obviously recovering from a pandemic is not easy," he said.

He faced loud groans and boos when he said: "I think everyone knows the impact the industrial action has had, that's why we haven't made as much (progress)."

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Sunak was probed on key issues such as the NHS and migration
Sunak was probed on key issues such as the NHS and migration. Picture: Alamy

More trouble followed Sunak as another audience member who was a "lifelong true blue" and former Conservative Party chairwoman said she was an "undecided voter".

"Actions taken by this Government actually make me feel ashamed."

She highlighted Mr Sunak's early departure from D-Day commemorations and pandemic rule-breaking in Downing Street.

Mr Sunak repeated his apology over his D-Day departure, adding on Covid-19: "Those rules were difficult for everyone to follow and the Government should absolutely have gone above and beyond in following them. I deeply regret what happened, I apologised for it at the time and it was an extraordinarily difficult time for our country.

"I know that and I know people will remember that and all I can say is, look, trust takes time to rebuild through actions."

He went on to defend the Government's support during the pandemic and efforts to improve the economy.

The tough questions continued after a student asked Sunak why any young person would vote for the Conservative Party following their National Service announcment.

The audience audibly reacted before the question had even finished.

Sunak responded saying the service will be "transformative" and is "excited" for his two girls to do it.

He added the service will provide skills and opportunities and improve the "resilience and security" of the country.

He was further probed on this by the audience who asked him: "Why are you moving your party so far away from younger voters when it's the key demographic that will be our future?"

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Keir Starmer faced difficult questions, some of which he dodged or attempted to avert
Keir Starmer faced difficult questions, some of which he dodged or attempted to avert. Picture: Alamy

Key moments from Sir Keir's part include some difficult questions about his personality and if he connects with voters.

An often-repeated line from Starmer about his Dad being a toolmaker was met with laughs from the audience.

The line, which he may believe made him more relatable, did not go down particularly well.

He also appeared shocked when an audience member accused him of being a "political robot".

The audience member said he admired "how in touch with the public" the Labour leader appeared when he was director of public prosecutions.

"But over the last year I feel like you have formed into more of a politician than the person I would have voted for to run the country. You seem more like a political robot. How are you going to convince others like me to vote for you?".

In response, Sir Keir answered by speaking about his work in the Crown Prosecution Service and entering politics late.

"I am not tribally political," he said.

"I actually do believe there are good people who vote other than Labour who want their family, their community, and their country to go forward."

"You don't seem to answer the question," the man replied.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, addresses the audience during a Sky News election event with Sky's political editor Beth Rigby, in Grimsby. Picture date: Wednesday June 12, 2024.
Keir addresses the audience . Picture: Alamy

Still on the theme of his family, Keir admitted his biggest fear if he becomes prime minister is for his family.

He said his son is almost 16 years old and his daughter 13, adding these are "really difficult ages" for children.

"My only fear really is the impact it's going to have on them."

He added his wife Victoria did not want him to enter politics after he finished as director of public prosecutions.

"My wife was ringing adverts in the papers about well-paid lawyers' jobs and I said 'no, I want to serve my country', which is why, at a late stage, I came into politics to serve my country."

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The Labour leader was also probed on whether there was a trust issue with voters given his frequent changes of position on various issues.

He replied saying he decided it must be "country first" for every decision.

"I said 'Is this truly country first, party second'; if the answer to that was 'no' then I changed the position and dragged my party back to the service of working people."

He was also pressed on his previous support for former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

He said: "I did campaign for Labour, of course I did, I will openly say I campaigned for Labour, I wanted good colleagues to be returned into the Labour Party."

Sir Keir repeatedly said he was "certain" Labour would lose in 2019 when challenged over his support for Mr Corbyn.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, addresses the audience during a Sky News election event with Sky's political editor Beth Rigby, in Grimsby. Picture date: Wednesday June 12, 2024.
Starmer was likened to a "political robot". Picture: Alamy

He also clashed with a junior doctor when answering a question about industrial action.

"I have been frustrated, if I'm honest, that these strikes have gone on as long as they have gone on.

"The strikes are very bad for patients. People are very anxious about the strike. I don't think doctors want to be on strike."

He added: "Instead of arguing about who gets in the room first to negotiate with the doctors, we would roll up our sleeves in a grown-up way, get in the room and settle this dispute so that patients can get the care they need, doctors can get back to work, and the country can move forward, because we can't go on like this any more."

Responding to a follow-up question from the junior doctor, Sir Keir said: "Pay, progression, conditions, all of that can be negotiated.

"On the 35%, I don't think we can afford that as a country because of the damage that's been done to the economy. I don't want to pretend to you that we can."

Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks to the audience, during the Sky News election debate, in Grimsby, England, Wednesday June 12, 2024. (Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP)
The Labour Party manifesto is to be unveiled tomorrow. Picture: Alamy

The Labour leader was applauded when he faced questions about tax.

He said: "The Tories are in no position to lecture anyone about tax rises.

"We've got the highest tax burden for 70 years and I think working people shouldn't pay more tax. We will not raise their tax.

"What we need to do is get the economy going - there's a reason that taxes have gone up so much in recent years and that's because the economy is flatlining."

The Labour leader earlier promised "a very forward looking manifesto".

The Labour Party manifesto is to be unveiled tomorrow.

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