Rishi Sunak accuses Keir Starmer of planning tax raid in leaders' debate, as Labour chief vows to 'rebuild Britain'

4 June 2024, 22:54 | Updated: 5 June 2024, 00:11

Starmer and Sunak debated on Tuesday night
Starmer and Sunak debated on Tuesday night. Picture: ITV

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak repeatedly accused Sir Keir Starmer of planning to raise taxes if he became Prime Minister in a fiery first debate between Conservative and Labour leaders on Tuesday night.

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Mr Sunak repeatedly levelled a claim at Sir Keir that he would increase taxes for the average household by £2,000 - with the Labour leader saying this was "garbage" and based on faulty calculations. Labour Shadow Cabinet member Jonathan Ashworth later said the claim was "absolute nonsense".

Both leaders committed to not increasing income tax, national insurance or VAT in the debate.

But the Prime Minister accused Sir Keir Starmer of plotting a "retirement tax" because he had no plans to match the Conservative "triple lock-plus" commitment to increase the personal allowance for pensioners.

Mr Sunak said: "You should explain to everyone why you think pensioners will be paying a retirement tax under your government."

Read more: Nigel Farage laughs off McDonald's milkshake stunt as election rivals condemn 'assault' and two suspects arrested

Read more: General Election LIVE: Reaction after Starmer and Sunak go head to head in leaders' debate

Starmer and Sunak debate
Starmer and Sunak debate. Picture: Getty

Sir Keir said in response that what Mr Sunak had "done so far for the two weeks of this campaign is to take desperate gimmicks and put them on the table."

He recalled Mr Sunak's predecessor Liz Truss, whom he accused of "crashing the economy", Sir Keir pointed to reported Tory aspirations to get rid of national insurance and inheritance tax, which have not been announced as formal policies

He said: "The big problem with Liz Truss is that she made unfunded tax cuts. The Prime Minister is doing the same thing."

The debate became fiery at times, with both Mr Sunak and Sir Keir trying to speak over each other and having to be reminded to calm down.

Rishi Sunak during the debate
Rishi Sunak during the debate. Picture: Getty

They were asked questions by audience members on the cost of living, the NHS, immigration, Gaza, the environment, housing, and the future for young people, among others.

Responding to a question from a spectator who said she was struggling financially, Sir Keir suggested Mr Sunak did not understand her plight - unlike him.

Referring to his own childhood, he said: "I do know the anguish of worrying, when the postman comes with a bill, what is that bill going to be, can I pay it?

"I don't think the Prime Minister quite understands the position that you and other people are in. "

Natasha recaps the first half of the leader's debate

Later, asked by a cancer survivor in the audience how long it will take to "fix" a "broken" NHS, Sir Keir said it was the condition that the health service had been left in by the Conservatives was "unforgivable".

The Labour leader said waiting lists needed to be brought down - which he said his party had a plan to combat.

He said he wouldn't accept junior doctors' 35% pay rise demand and would tackle strikes by mediating the dispute. He said Mr Sunak had kicked the issue into "the long grass".

Mr Sunak defended his government for putting "record funding" into the NHS but admitted that it was "facing challenges".

The PM also accused Sir Keir of saying he had a plan to help the NHS, without providing any details.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer arriving for the debate
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer arriving for the debate. Picture: Alamy

Sir Keir said he would not use a private healthcare provider if a loved one was on a long waiting list, in response to a direct question, while Mr Sunak said he would.

Asked about the state of the education system, Sir Keir said its condition was part of a "pattern" of public services under the Conservatives.

We've just been talking about the NHS and Janet says it's broken, we've now gone to education and the teachers say that's broken as well.

"And I know the Prime Minister has already said in the first, however many, minutes of this debate that he doesn't have anything to do with the last 14 years - I'm sorry Prime Minister you may just want to cast it off, but everyone else is living with it.

"When it comes to schools we desperately need more teachers, because in secondary schools we do not have the teachers we need."

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives at the TV studios in Manchester ahead of the debate
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives at the TV studios in Manchester ahead of the debate. Picture: Alamy

Sir Keir reiterated his stated policy of recruiting 6,500 teachers to fill gaps, and said he "will get rid of the tax break on private schools to pay for it, that's a tough choice, I do understand that".

Mr Sunak said in response: "I think people who work hard and aspire to provide their education for their kids should have that freedom, that's what my parents did and I'll support it.

"But you heard him, Keir Starmer is going to raise taxes, but that's just the start because there's a long list of other things that he needs to find the money for. So it's not just going to start and stop there".

Challenged on immigration, Mr Sunak admitted that arrivals had been too high in recent years, but said that the Rwanda flights would begin in July. Overnight, the Conservatives announced a new plan to cap migrants to be voted on by MPs.

Ben Kentish and Liz Kendall react

"Stick to our plan and illegal migrants will be on those planes - with Labour they will be out on our streets," he said.

Sir Keir said in response: "The levels of migration are at record highs - 685,000. It's never been that high, save in the last year or two.

"The Prime Minister says it's too high. Who's in charge? He's in charge. He's the most liberal prime minister we've ever had on immigration."

He also said Mr Sunak of failing to meet a promise to stop small boats crossing the Channel.

The Prime Minister also suggested he would take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights if it blocked the Rwanda plan.

Mr Sunak said: "I'm crystal clear, I believe all our plans are compliant with our international obligations, but if I am forced to choose between securing our borders and our country's security, or a foreign court, I'm going to choose our country's security every single time."

Sir Keir said in response that he would not follow suit, adding: ""We will not pull out of international agreements and international law which is respected the world over.

"Because I want the UK to be a respected player on the global stage, not a pariah who doesn't agree with international law."

The Labour leader also said that he would support the idea of processing asylum claims in third countries "if that was possible to do it in compliance with international law".

But he added: "At the moment, people arriving by small boats are not having their claims processed.

"By the end of the year that means there'll be 100,000 people in hotels at taxpayers' expense who are not having no claims process.

"That means one thing: they cannot be returned and that's why returns have gone down by 40% on his watch."

Asked about international affairs, both Sir Keir and Mr Sunak said they would work with Donald Trump if he were re-elected, despite his recent criminal conviction.

Sir Keir said: "If he's elected president of the US, then we will deal with him.

"The special relationship transcends whoever fills the post of prime minister and president because it's such an important strong relationship."

The Prime Minister said that "having a strong relationship with our closest partner and ally in the United States is critical for keeping everyone in our country safe."

Quizzed on the UK's place on the world and their stances on Gaza, both leaders said they would work towards a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

Mr Sunak said the UK had led the way in providing aid to Gaza, adding that the UK supports the US-led ceasefire deal.

He said: "But more generally, the world is a more uncertain place. What Hamas is doing is indicative of the dangers we face, which is why I've made the bold decision to increase investment in our country's defence."

Mr Sunak added: "I don't think the Labour Party can be trusted to keep this country as safe as the Conservatives" and claimed that Sir Keir did not believe in the nuclear deterrent.

The Labour leader said this was a "shocking" claim. He added: "Before I was a politician I was the director of public prosecutions, I was working on national security, I was dealing with terrorist plots."

On Gaza, Sir Keir said: "We have to find a path to a lasting resolution and we need to show leadership on that."

Both Mr Sunak and Sir Keir were accused by another audience member of breaking their promises on the climate.

The PM denied this, saying: "No, we're going to stick to the targets we put in place but we're going to do it in a way that saves you all money.

"I'm not going to impose thousands of pounds of costs on you to arbitrarily rip out your boiler, change your car, convert your home.

"Now Keir Starmer is going to reverse those changes that I made so everyone is facing thousands of pounds of higher bills."

Sir Keir said in response: "It's hard to respond because he's making up as he goes along."

He added hat he would keep his promise to achieve clean power by 2030, and outlined his plans for GB Energy.

Asked later about their plans for young people, Sir Keir said the Tories' national service policy was "desperate" and "not sensible".

He questioned why they announced the "teenage Dad's Army" policy weeks before the election and not during their previous 14 years in power.

Mr Sunak hit back, claiming that Labour didn't have any plans for the future, and could only "sneer" at the Conservatives' policies instead.

The PM said that the plan would be "transformational for young people in our country, giving them the skills and opportunity they need to succeed in life" - raising a laugh from the audience.

The questions ended with a light-hearted attempt to compare the challenges of serving as the Prime Minister with being the England football manager.

Mr Sunak said: "Not to give advice to Gareth Southgate who, when I met him, we did discuss who had the worst job in Britain in terms of other people giving you their opinions, but as I say you need to have a clear plan and you need to take bold action, because you don't do anything without those things."

Sir Keir Starmer said: "Game plan, good squad - and he's got both of those - I really think we're going to do really well this year, we've got a fantastic team."

He added: "He's very, very good at this, and he's built a squad, just like I've got a brilliant shadow cabinet."

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