'Tension was palpable': Julie Etchingham shares mood in studio ahead of ITV Sunak-Starmer debate

ITV News Presenter and debate moderator, Julie Etchingham, reflects on what the mood was like ahead of the debate and how she navigated the tense hour-long programme

As the dust settles on Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer's first live televised head-to-head showdown on ITV, viewers across the country have shared their thoughts on who came out on top.

The leaders were grilled during a tense hour on the economy, NHS, immigration and more by audience members and veteran ITV election debates moderator, Julie Etchingham, on Tuesday evening.

But what was the mood like in the studio before the clock struck 9pm and went live to around five million viewers across the nation?

"The tension, not just in the half an hour ahead of that debate but in the whole of the debate studio, for the whole of the day before we went on air, was palpable with both teams," Etchingham told ITV News' Talking Politics: The Election podcast.

"There was a lot riding on it."

Etchingham explains how both team Sunak and team Starmer got a chance to look at the set and ask questions about how the programme will work technically - but crucially, they had no idea what they would be asked.

"There was a crackle in the air," recalls Etchingham. "It was clear the issue of Nigel Farage was looming large over the Sunak camp.

"It was also clear with Keir Starmer this was the first moment for a lot of people watching, that it may well have been the first moment when they sat down and took in what the Labour leader was looking and sounding like before he even said anything."

The ITV News presenter said it was "clear that both of them were pretty keyed up" and that it was "fascinating to see how they act under pressure".

"I thought it was quite noticeable with Keir Starmer that there was a moment when I just looked over and thought I bet he stood like that at the bar, as in his barrister, former life as a lawyer," she added.

"There were some little moments where you suddenly got that insight and reminder of his professional background before he came into politics.

"With Rishi Sunak, he'd done more debates, and he was quite keen to stress that to us when we were chatting beforehand. He said 'I remember being here in 2019' - he'd had more experience at them.

"He was very straight on, very focused on that camera, and had decided how he was going to own that space."

The debate was the leaders' first chance to battle it out one-on-one to convince the public why they deserve the top job - resulting in Etchingham repeatedly urging the men to stop talking over each other.

Another crucial moment that changed the course of the debate was Mr Sunak's repeated claim that Labour will increase tax by £2,000 for working households.

It was a claim that took Sir Keir some time to rebut, which he called "absolute garbage", and would later go on to dominate much of the discourse on Wednesday, with Labour accusing the Tories of lying, and Mr Sunak's camp doubling down.

Etchingham reflected on what it was like to moderate the debut debate and how she adapted to the leaders' responses.

"The brutal reality is when you're doing those debates, you are literally in the moment," she told the podcast.

"You are thinking right, where does this go next, he needs to respond to that, he's just said this, where do we go with it, do we give this more time, do we work this later on into the debate?

"We'd developed a whole section that we were going to address tax and spend on quite specifically and suddenly you get a claim, like the claim Rishi Sunak made, and then you know you’ve got to reshape things.

"You already know this is going to have a bit of life outside of the debate but actually, when you're in that moment you're just thinking where do we navigate it?

"You're constantly making recalibrations as it goes on."

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