Brand Strategy Policy & Regulation Media

Sunak v Starmer: Who came out on top in the first UK leaders’ debate?


By Alastair Duncan, Co-founder

June 5, 2024 | 6 min read

Last night, the leaders of the UK’s two main political parties – Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer – went head to head in a televised debate to win the nation’s votes. Politics for Drummies podcast host Alastair Duncan scores the bout.

Starmer & Sunak

Starmer fends off Sunak's attacks

It perhaps wasn’t the debate and switch we’d hoped for. I’d say it was a split decision in the TV bout for Sunak on the night but a majority decision for Starmer in the morning.

To further my endeavors as a political sketch writer, I’ve taken up boxing, where points are given for landing blows as well as smart moves for defense, control of the ring, aggression and so on.

It seems relevant to last night’s thriller, Sunak v Starmer: The Debate live on ITV. For a start, it wasn’t really a debate but an ill-tempered Q&A in a part game show, part serious attempt to give the leaders a chance to enter the ring on national TV.

The format was tricky, with 45 seconds for each question, which (pitch consultants take note) wasn’t really enough to answer the questions from the audience (gainfully put by ITV’s Julie Etchingham) properly.

Both leaders had been extensively briefed for the event, but it was clear from the start that Sunak had a plan to attack and attack and Starmer had a plan to explain and explain. In a political vibes culture, the attack plan is more effective for instant headlines (cue hundreds of social clips in your feeds). To use another analogy from the Byron Sharp world, promotional investment does get you short-term sales.

In this structure, Sunak edged it on points, according to one YouGov instant poll on the night, winning it by 51-49.

Sunak went hard from the off, landing his punchy ‘Labour will tax you £2,000 more,’ blow several times by repeating it as frequently as he could. He actively defended his record by ignoring it, claiming ‘this election is about the future’ and ‘the NHS is safe with me as my dad was a GP.’

He was aggressive and in full mansplaining mode, putting extra questions to Starmer and talking over the moderator, as he had in the Conservative leadership debate with Liz Truss. His famous tetchiness and lack of empathy did show up a little bit: “I remember being excited by getting the keys to my first [$20,000 a month in California] flat” in response to a young person’s question about hope for the future.

Starmer defended himself adequately throughout but was clearly ill at ease with the format in the first half (perhaps expecting some stronger refereeing), leaving it to near the end to debunk Sunak’s false tax claim (which comes from a Conservative paper not endorsed by the treasury, a point reaffirmed this morning).

But he found his stride, reminding us all again that his dad was a toolmaker and his wife worked for the NHS. His “14 years of Tory chaos” and “more Sunak broken promises” one-two landed pretty effectively and he pulled out a neat left hook with evidence from the consultancy the Tories are using to trash the cost of green energy policies by saying the same firm trashed the Tories energy policies by rather more.

As the show wound up, it all felt a bit flat as the format, after the early shouting, was too rushed and the characters not lively enough to deliver a Mike Tyson ear-biter moment, apart from everyone laughing at Sunak’s national service plan. Is the nation any the wiser? And will it pull back the Tories from the brink?

No. If policy advisors were hoping for an ‘I agree with Nick’ effect of the last substantial TV debate between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown in 2010, where the overwhelming winner was Nick Clegg for 61% of viewers, while Cameron and Brown trailed on 22% and 17%, it didn’t materialize.

If anything, it builds the boring election narrative, as described by perennial political parrot Nigel Farage, again milking the headlines quite literally as he was hit by a McDonald’s milkshake on the campaign trail in Clacton on Sea.

The truth is most people won’t have watched the debate and the effect on the election will be minimal. The 20-point difference in the polls won’t be reversed, to reference Byron Sharp again – the long-term effect of 14 years is not going to be reversed by gimmicks.

In fact, in the cold light of voters’ lives, this will only harden. In another nationally representative poll by Savanta Res of the UK public who watched the debate live, Starmer was seen to have the best answers on the NHS and public services (Starmer 63%, Sunak 25%), the economy and cost of living (Starmer 52%, Sunak 36%) and on defense and security (Starmer 43%, Sunak 41%).

Given those are the issues on which the election will be decided, it’s hard to see what Sunak can do to deliver any killer blows in the rematch.

And in the personality-based questions, Starmer also walked it, coming across as honest (Starmer 54%, Sunak 29%), as having gave the most thoughtful answers (Starmer 53%, Sunak 35%) and as having remained the calmest (Starmer 51%, Sunak 36%).

Compared with the 2019 election won by Boris on ‘personality vibes’ (which we discuss with the team that worked on it in an upcoming episode of Politics for Drummies), Labour is more than fit for this fight.

Brand Strategy Policy & Regulation Media

More from Brand Strategy

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +