From immigration to NHS strikes: The key takeaways from Sunak and Starmer's head-to-head debate

Watch key moments from Sunak v Starmer: ITV Debate, where the party leaders battled it out to convince the public why they deserve the keys to Number 10.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have met in the first head-to-head debate of the 2024 General Election campaign.

The duo clashed on a number of key voter issues, including the economy and healthcare, across an hour-long ITV programme on Tuesday evening.

The debate was watched by an average of five million viewers, including those tuning in on streaming service ITVX.

Here, ITV News looks at the key takeaways to emerge from the debate.

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Economy and taxes

The prime minister and Labour leader kicked off a feisty debate by grappling over their respective economic policies.

Mr Sunak said his plan to tackle the cost-of-living crisis "is working", referencing falling inflation and his record as chancellor - including the introduction of the furlough scheme - saying "now our economy is growing again".

He 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.

Sir Keir continued that "this government has lost control", adding that Mr Sunak's predecessor, Liz Truss, had "crashed the economy".

Both leaders confirmed later in the debate that they did not intend to raise income tax, national insurance or VAT.

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NHS waiting lists

When asked by an audience member to be honest about the current state of the NHS and whether it is broken, the two party leaders clashed over progress being made to hospital waiting lists.

Mr Sunak, who made cutting NHS waiting lists one of his key priorities when he first became PM, was told by Sir Keir that more people are now awaiting routine hospital treatment today than when he first made the pledge.

He said: "Waiting lists were 7.2 million, they're now 7.5 million. He says they're coming down and this is the guy that says he's good at maths."

Mr Sunak replied: "They are now coming down."

Sir Keir said: "7.2 million when you said you'd get them down. 7.2 million, they're now 7.5 million. I'd like you to explain how they're coming down.

Mr Sunak responded: "Because they are coming down from where they were when they were higher."

Watch the moment Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer clash over NHS waiting lists

Private healthcare

Both candidates were asked if they would use private healthcare if either had a loved-one on a long waiting list for surgery.

Mr Sunak said he would, whereas Sir Keir replied: "No."

"I don't use private health. I use the NHS. That's where my wife works, in one of the big hospitals; as I said it runs through my DNA," the Labour leader added.

The PM was not given an opportunity to expand on his answer.

The prime minister and Labour leader gave opposing answers when asked if they would use private healthcare were a close relative on a long waiting list for surgery

NHS strikes

Mr Sunak and Sir Keir challenged each other on how their counterpart would tackle strikes by junior doctors.

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.

"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.

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

'Special relationship' with Trump?

Both men were asked if they would want a "special relationship" with Donald Trump - now a convicted criminal - were he to be re-elected to the White House in November.

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

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

Mr Sunak 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."

'Would convicted criminal Donald Trump be someone you as prime minister would want a special relationship with?' - Watch the responses from both Mr Sunak and Sir Keir


One of the key voter topics coming into the debate was immigration and it elicited some of the most divisive discussions.

Sir Keir accused Mr Sunak of being "the most liberal prime minister we've ever had on immigration".

Asked by an audience member why either leader should be trusted to do anything about illegal immigration, Mr Sunak said deportation flights will take off to Rwanda "in July, but only if I'm your prime minister".

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

Sir Keir said that Mr Sunak had "completely failed" to meet his pledge to stop small boats crossing the Channel.

He added that he supported processing asylum claims in third countries "if that was possible to do it in compliance with international law".

'Stick to our plan and illegal migrants will be on those planes - with Labour they will be out on our streets'

Private education

Mr Sunak said people who work hard and aspire to provide their children with private education, should have the "freedom" to do just that.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: "There's a pattern here, isn't there? We've just been talking about the NHS and Janet [studio audience member] 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."

He added that one of Labour's first steps would be to recruit 6,500 teachers to fill gaps, and he "will get rid of the tax break on private schools to pay for it, that's a tough choice, I do understand that".

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