Immigration, NHS, taxes: Starmer and Sunak battle it out in ITV debate

ITV News' Tom Bradby brings the highlights of Sunak v Starmer: ITV Debate, as the party leaders battled it out to convince the public why they deserve the keys to Number 10.

Words by Elisa Menendez, Westminster Producer

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer went head-to-head in their debut live television showdown of the General Election campaign on ITV.

On July 5, only one of them will be prime minister and tonight was their first chance to battle it out one-on-one to convince the public why they deserve the top job - resulting in ITV News Presenter Julie Etchingham repeatedly urging the men to stop talking over each other.

The debate focused on key issues facing the country, including the NHS, the cost of living crisis, immigration, the conflict in Gaza, and how the UK's special relationship with convicted felon Donald Trump will play out if he gets back into office.

A YouGov poll released immediately after the credits rolled showed the prime minister came out on top, with 51% saying he performed better, compared to 49% in favour of Sir Keir.

Sir Keir kicked off the debate by telling viewers Labour will "turn the page" and stop "the chaos and division seen for the last 14 years".

He vowed he has changed the Labour Party and has "put it back in the service of working people".

Mr Sunak said "uncertain times call for a clear action and a bold plan," adding "beyond raising your taxes and raising your pensions, no one knows what Labour would do" as he focused on discussing cutting taxes and immigration.

Cost of Living

The first audience question focused on the cost of living crisis, with Paula from Huddersfield telling how she has to batch cook at the weekend because she can't afford to turn on her oven during peak times.

Mr Sunak pointed to the furlough scheme, efforts to bring down inflation and said “now our economy is growing again”, insisting his plan is working.

“I know you’re only just starting to see the benefits of that," Mr Sunak said.

Sir Keir clapped back: “He says the plan is working, so the question for him is why has he called the election now?

“Because if he thinks things are going to get better towards the second half of this year, why has he called it now? He’s called it now because he knows, and I’ll ask him this, he knows inflation is going to go back up, he knows energy prices are going to go back up in the autumn.

"That’s what he’s not telling you. So he says the plan is working, but I don’t think he believes the plan is working."

Mr Sunak repeatedly said there would be "£2,000 higher taxes for every working family" under a Labour government.

In response, Sir Keir said: "This £2,000 he keeps saying it's going to cost is absolute garbage."

Initial analysis by the charity Full Fact said the prime minister's claim was based on Conservative estimates of Labour spending plans and covers a long list of policy announcements.

Mr Sunak made the tax claim several times during the debate - but a leaked letter from a top Treasury official has undermined the claim.

In a letter dated June 3, Treasury Permanent Secretary James Bowler said the calculation “includes costs beyond those provided by the Civil Service”.

Writing to Shadow Treasury Chief Secretary Darren Jones, he said: “Costings derived from other sources or produced by other organisations should not be presented as having been produced by the Civil Service. I have reminded ministers and advisers that this should be the case.”

The NHS, waiting lists and doctor strikes

An audience member named Janet, who is a cancer survivor and whose son is a nurse, told how she recently suffered the loss of her cousin who died while waiting for NHS treatment.

She appeared emotional as she said: "No one is brave enough to tell us the truth. The NHS is broken. Be honest with us, how log will it take to fix it?"

Both leaders pointed to their own personal family ties to the NHS, but Sir Keir drew a laugh from the audience when he mocked Mr Sunak over his claim that NHS waiting lists are coming down.

Sir Keir replied: "You can imagine how angry I am that it's been broken - and it has been broken exactly as you describe, it's unforgiveable what's happened to the NHS.

"To come into power for 14 years and leave the NHS in a worse state than when you found it is unforgiveable in politics."

He hit out at Mr Sunak saying how 18 months ago he vowed to get waiting lists down, but added "they've gone up."

Asked how long it would take to fix the “broken” health service, the PM pointed to the damage done by the Covid pandemic, acknowledged it would take time to recover “but we are now making progress: waiting lists are coming down”.

There was laughter when the Labour leader clapped back: “They were 7.2 million, they’re now 7.5 million. He says they are coming down and this is the guy who says he’s good at maths.”

The audience groaned as Mr Sunak said doctors' strikes had impacted the backlog, with Sir Keir replying: "So it's somebody else's fault?"

'How would you resolve it? You want to be prime minister, how would you resolve the strikes?' - Watch Sir Keir's response to Rishi Sunak asking how he would tackle junior doctor walkouts

The Tory leader challenged Sir Keir to say how he would resolve the government’s long-running dispute with junior doctors, with Mr Sunak earning a round of applause when he said he would not offer a 35% pay rise.

Sir Keir said Labour had already admitted that, were his party to win the General Election, it could not afford the demands being asked by junior doctors as the government had "crashed the economy".

But when pushed on exactly how he would deal with the issue, Sir Keir complained that he could not "get a word in edgeways" due to interjections from the PM.

Mr Sunak pushed: "How would you resolve it? You want to be prime minister, how would you resolve the strikes?"

"We have to end these strikes. The grown-up way to do that is to get in the room and negotiate with the doctors and come to a settlement," the Labour leader added.

Julie Etchingham asked the leaders if either of them would use private health care if a loved one could not receive critical treatment on the NHS - to which Mr Sunak said he would, while Sir Keir said he wouldn't.

'If you had loved ones on a long waiting list for surgery, would you - if you felt it was the only way forward - use private health care?'


An audience member said "politicians have broken so many promises" on immigration and asked why he should trust either of the leaders to do anything about the numbers of people risking their lives to cross the Channel to reach the UK. Mr Sunak conceded "immigration is too high" and pointed to his Rwanda policy as a deterrent for illegal migration, as well as his legal migration cap.

He told the audience: "Migrants have been detained. The flights will go in July - but only if I'm your prime minister.

"If Keir Starmer is elected all those people will be released, flights will be cancelled and we will have no deterrent to stop the unfairness of people crossing in boats. "So that's the choice for you at this election, stick to our plan and illegal migrants will be on those planes and with Labour they'll be out on the streets."

Sir Keir accused Mr Sunak of being “the most liberal prime minister we’ve ever had on immigration”.

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

“The prime minister says it’s too high. Who’s in charge? He’s in charge."

Israel and Gaza

Attention turned to the conflict in Gaza, with an audience member saying he was concerned about the "lack of leadership" on a world stage and what should happen next.

Julie Etchingham pointed out that a lot of people "have been very uncomfortable with the stance both" have taken.

Sir Keir said the situation in Gaza is "intolerable and catastrophic", adding "what we need now is a ceasefire and a cessation of the hostilities straight away."

"Firstly, we have to get the hostages out... I dread to think of the state they're in", he said, adding that humanitarian aid needs to "desperately" get into Gaza.

"Thirdly, we have to find a path to a lasting resolution - that has to be a two-state solution and we need to show leadership on that... if we're humble enough to serve that will be my solemn duty."

The prime minister conceded it's an "awful situation" and said he was pleased Sir Keir supported Israel's right to defend itself along with him.

He pointed to the US' proposal to bring an immediate end to the hostilities, release hostages, get more aid in and "build towards a lasting settlement, with a two-state solution".

Donald Trump

Both party leaders said the UK’s so-called special relationship with the US would continue if Donald Trump, now a convicted felon, re-enters the White House.

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 PM said: “Yes, because having a strong relationship with our closest partner and ally in the United States is critical for keeping everyone in our country safe.”

The debate marked the most significant moment of the election campaign so far, putting the two leaders under significant pressure and scrutiny.

For Mr Sunak - who is lagging way behind in the polls - it was an opportunity for him to gain some momentum, while any mistakes for Sir Keir could have a disastrous impact on his big lead.

It comes as Nigel Farage launched his campaign to large crowds in Clacton, Essex, after announcing he is replacing Richard Tice as Reform UK leader - dealing another blow to the Tories.

The Labour Party leader headed into the debate off the back of a busy morning canvassing in Bolton North East, Greater Manchester - a seat the Tories hope to defend - while the prime minister took the day off campaigning after visiting 24 constituencies so far.

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