Immigration, the economy and the NHS: The key questions leaders face ahead of tonight's debate

ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman looks back at the highs and lows of previous TV election debates.

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer will this evening go head-to-head in the first televised debate of the General Election campaign.

The Conservatives are campaigning on a promise to deliver a “clear plan, bold action” and a “secure future”, while the Labour Party has pledged to deliver “change”.

But beneath the slogans, tonight's debate will see each leader challenged on the key areas of policy which are set to shape the election.


Who can be trusted on the economy is the central question this election. In recent weeks, the Labour Party has been keen to argue that after 14 years in government, the Conservatives no longer have any economic credibility.

In particular, they have sought to remind voters of Liz Truss’ tumultuous 45-day tenure as prime minister, and the impact of her ill-fated mini-budget on public finances and mortgages.

This sentiment has been echoed by key figures throughout the campaign.

“The Tories cannot be trusted with the finances of the country,” Sir Keir said over the weekend as he launched his party’s battle bus in West London, “stability is change after the chaos of the last 14 years”.

We can expect this to be a regular attack line from Sir Keir this evening. Labour says if elected they will inherit the worst economy since the Second World war.

As a result, while the party has promised not to hike personal taxes if elected, including income tax, national insurance and VAT, officials have largely steered clear of making ambitious or headline grabbing fiscal promises, instead promising simply to boost economic growth.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have used this lack of detail to argue that Labour has no plan for the country, a frequent attack line heard from Mr Sunak.

“They might say a lot of things but the question is, ‘what are they actually going to do when it comes to people’s standard of living?,” Mr Sunak told broadcasters over the weekend.

In tonight's debate, we can expect Mr Sunak to argue that his government has contended with unprecedented external shocks, such as the Ukraine conflict and pandemic, and he will likely tout his role in delivering furlough as chancellor during Covid.

The Conservatives are keen to argue that their economic plan is tried and tested and in recent months has put more money in people's pockets.

Mr Sunak will likely point to recent lowered inflation figures and tax cuts to national insurance, as evidence for why the public should stick with him.

He'll also accuse Labour of plotting a tax raid if elected, reiterating claims made over the campaign trail this weekend that Labour has “£2,000 worth of tax rises” coming for every working family.

ITV News at Ten Presenter Julie Etchingham will be chairing the first General Election leaders' debate. Credit: ITV

Healthcare and the NHS

In January last year, Mr Sunak made cutting NHS waiting lists as one of his five pledges as prime minister.

Yet more than a year on, his government struggled to make progress, with wait times reaching a record high of 7.8 million last year - a point that will likely form a key part of Sir Keir’s attack line on the NHS.

The Labour Party has made reducing NHS wait times one of their six priorities if elected, promising more appointments over the weekends and evenings and greater collaboration between NHS trusts.

Meanwhile, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has been keen to argue in recent weeks that the Conservatives have left the health service “broken” and “crying out for change”.

We can expect Mr Sunak to tout the party’s recent plans to build 100 GP practices and invest in community healthcare, alongside blaming high wait times on the ongoing battle with junior doctors who have vowed to continue their industrial action throughout the campaigning period.

The Conservative leader will likely press Sir Keir on his strategy for dealing with the strikes.

The British Medical Association (BMA) are calling for full pay restoration to reverse what they describe as a “steep decline” in junior doctor pay since 2008/09, but in a recent interview with the Times newspaper , Sir Keir has made clear the limits of any negotiations with junior doctors.

“If we are privileged to come in it will fall to us to get in the room. We can’t afford 35 per cent. We’ve said that to the doctors,” he said.

Party leaders Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak will go head to head in tonight's debate. Credit: PA


Over the weekend, Sir Keir waded into the immigration debate with a punchy interview in The Sun newspaper where he promised to reduce net migration which last year reached 685,000.

“Read my lips - I will bring immigration numbers down,” he vowed.

He said that any Labour government would ensure that businesses applying for foreign worker visas prioritise training UK staff, while companies that break employment law could be banned from hiring overseas workers.

On illegal migration, Labour has pledged to abandon the Rwanda scheme, branding it a gimmick.

Officials say they will focus on cracking down on criminal smuggling gangs and security partnerships with Europe.

Sir Keir will be keen to focus on the spiraling costs of the Rwanda scheme, which so far have amounted to £240 million, and will steer clear of putting forward any targets for reducing legal or illegal migration in a bid to avoid repeating the political mistakes of previous leaders.

Most notably, as leader of the Conservative Party in 2010 David Cameron pledged to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”, only to see that number spiral upwards year on year. This pledge still haunts the Conservative party today.

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak will argue that only his party can be trusted to tackle immigration, as he will seek to position the Labour leader as inconsistent. This was a sentiment echoed by Home Secretary James Cleverly over the weekend.

“Keir Starmer has a track record of supporting high immigration levels and helping foreign criminals stay in Britain because he believes all immigration law is racist,” he argued.

He added: “This is yet another day where Starmer will say what he thinks people want to hear during an election because he lacks conviction to say what he believes."

Overnight, the Conservatives promised to introduce a cap on the number of visas, on top of existing plans to change the requirements to student and family visas introduced last winter.

Mr Sunak will likely point to the raft of measures under successive home secretary’s such as the Rwanda scheme, as proof that his party is willing to take the difficult and sometimes unpopular measures to migration numbers down.

The hour-long ITV debate will be on Tuesday June 4 at 9pm. The debate will be broadcast on ITV1, ITVX and STV and STV Player.

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