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No body blows in leaders’ head to head

The thing to remember about last night’s TV debate is that the two leaders were pitching squarely at an audience who were probably paying attention to the campaign for the first time. That’s their hope, anyway.

Political obsessives (which includes almost all journalists and most people on Twitter) may have followed the twists and turns of every Multilevel Regression and Poststratification opinion poll since the election was called, but most people haven’t. TV debates, still a novelty in this country, represent a fresh chance for the parties to hammer their key messages, deluge social media with clips, make an impression and dominate the headlines and airwaves. So, if it seemed to you as if Starmer and Sunak were robotic in their repetition of simplistic messages (change with Labour or a bold plan with the Conservatives), it’s because they fully intended to. A political slogan isn’t doing its job until the public becomes fed up with hearing it, and the 4.8 million people who watched the debate were probably close to this point by the end of it.

In that context, it’s no surprise we didn’t get a gladiatorial clash of intellects and philosophies. The format didn’t help, either, with ITV’s Julie Etchingham determined to cover as much ground as possible. Thus, mere moments were spent eliciting soundbites on such weighty topics as the future of the economy, global security, climate change, and immigration.

As for the leaders’ performances, there was a marked difference between the two.

Starmer had turned up expecting a rules-based regency duel, only to find Sunak putting on some knuckle dusters. The PM might have delivered his opening statement as if he were reading it off the back of a cereal box, but as soon as the questions started, he showed some fighting spirit. Another way to put it would be “rude and abrasive” – constantly interrupting Starmer and disregarding the agreed rules regarding who speaks when and for how long. The Labour leader routinely muttered “desperate” in the face of Sunak’s barrage of jibes, perhaps forgetting that the Tory leader was indeed in a desperate situation. Polls this week have shown he’s on course to lead his party into oblivion.

Tories needing a boost could cling to the notion that their guy did better than expected. One Tory advisor who watched the debate at party HQ told Hawthorn it was “the best evening of the campaign so far” and said there was plenty of cheering and table banging among staffers. Of course, if the PM couldn’t raise a cheer from his staff, he would be in trouble.

Snap polling of the viewing public by YouGov found that Sunak ‘won’ – by a single percentage point, but as a Labour source told us: “the debate polling has aged better overnight with Starmer leading on substance and all aspects including NHS, economy, immigration, the economy and cost of living as well as overall with a much wider poll.”

As for the different styles the two leaders took, Labour insiders are confident that Starmer’s calmer, more measured tone will ultimately prevail over Sunak’s “what have I got to lose?” aggression.

The Tories can chalk up ‘not crashing and burning’ as a modest victory, but turning their campaign around will take more than that. Indeed, there are signs that the PM’s performance is unravelling. He made much of “Treasury analysis” claiming that Labour’s spending plans will amount to a £2,000 tax bill for every family in the UK, but this morning the Treasury’s top civil servant has said the claims shouldn’t have been used and certainly shouldn’t have been attributed to independent officials.

Labour will be pleased that the debate seems to have allowed Starmer to reassert his more statesman-like qualities, while the Tories have yet to even digest the impact of Nigel Farage’s return to frontline politics, the consequences of which are likely to silence any further cheers from inside Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

If you’d like to speak to Hawthorn about our Political Advisory offering, please email Mark Burr at

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