‘Defeated man’ Sunak on course to heavy election loss after damning Sky debate verdict

Rishi Sunak’s seemingly inevitable path to defeat in the election saw him take another blow tonight after a snap poll of viewers of the Sky News debate with Keir Starmer saw him lose by almost two to one.

According to the YouGov survey of 1,864 voters who watched the two take questions in Grimsby, 64 per cent named Sir Keir as the winner and 36 per cent Mr Sunak.

It was a blow for a prime minister who needed to use the debate as a means of reigniting his campaign, which has seen the Tories trail Labour by more than 20 points and been dogged by a series of missteps.

Noticeably he did not repeat his line from the first debate that Labour would raise taxes by £2,000 for which Sir Keir had accused him of “lying”, after the Treasury’s most senior civil servant disowned the figure. But the opposition leader also only once referred to Labour’s claim that the Tories would lead to a mortgage payment increase of £4,800 over five years after that figure also drew ridicule.

Sunak answers questions (PA)
Sunak answers questions (PA)

Just 24 hours after he launched his party’s manifesto, Mr Sunak was still finding himself having to apologise for abandoning the D-Day commemorations early last week to do an interview on ITV. That interview today drew more mocking attacks on him for suggesting his childhood was a struggle because his parents did not pay for Sky television.

The PM arrived in Grimsby to headlines that his closest parliamentary aide Craig Williams had apologised for putting a bet on the general election date shortly before it was called and his defence secretary Grant Shapps had appeared to put up the white flag, warning against a Labour “supermajority”.

Despite this, Mr Sunak’s customary smile was in place as he took on a grilling from the audience and Sky’s political editor Beth Rigby. He seemed well prepared and engaged with a hostile audience.

But a question from a former local Tory chairperson saw the PM taken to task for leaving D-Day events early and for the trust lost during Partygate.

Starmer denied being robotic (Getty)
Starmer denied being robotic (Getty)

The night was not an easy one for the Labour leader, who was up first, even though he was the clear winner in the snap poll.

Sir Keir drew laughs when he repeated the line about his father being a toolmaker and a junior doctor made it clear that his refusal to agree to a 35 per cent pay rise would see strikes at hospitals continue.

But at the end of the night, when the audience was asked whether the two leaders had changed their minds, only a handful raised their hands. All three people asked said they were Tory voters who would not support the party at this election.

One described Mr Sunak as “looking like a defeated man”.

For his part, Sir Keir seemed briefly stumped after an audience member suggested he had become a “political robot” and asked how he would convince people to vote for him.

After a brief pause and a laugh from the audience, Sir Keir stressed a history of public service, particularly as director of public prosecutions, and said he was not “tribally political”.

Asked whether Sir Keir had convinced him, the audience member said: “You don’t seem to answer the question.”

But it was Mr Sunak who got the only booing of the night when he tried to blame doctors going on strike for the rising waiting lists.

Ms Rigby asked Mr Sunak about the five pledges he made at the start of 2023 and whether he had achieved them.

Mr Sunak said inflation had now returned to normal after his pledge to halve it, prompting heckles from the audience.

Beth Rigby put the questions (PA)
Beth Rigby put the questions (PA)

He responded that he knew things had been hard, but said he had tried to make them “a little bit easier”.

It was on NHS waiting lists that his comments prompted the strongest audience reaction, with one audience member shouting “boo” when he blamed industrial action for the lack of progress.

Both men struggled on tax, with Ms Rigby openly mocking Sir Keir’s answer of “no plans” to raise certain taxes. She told the audience: “Let me decode. When politicians say ‘no plans’ that means ‘it might happen’.”

But she also went after Mr Sunak over people’s taxes going up because of the freezing of income tax thresholds.

The prime minister said he could not comment on analysis he had not seen, but added the tax burden was “too high”, prompting further heckles from the audience.

Mr Sunak’s best moment came when a father complained his daughter’s hopes of buying her first home had been destroyed by Liz Truss and the mini-Budget.

In response, Mr Sunak said “inflation is down” and repeated his promise to “abolish stamp duty for first-time buyers like your daughter buying homes up to £425,000”.

However, he was attacked for his national service plans for young people but denied anyone avoiding it would face criminal charges. The audience laughed when he said he was “excited” for his two daughters to do it.”

After the debate, both sides claimed victory.

Asked about the brief pause Sir Keir took after being branded a “political robot” by an audience member, the Labour’s shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth told journalists in the post-broadcast spin room: “He had a bit of a smile on his face and he had a bit of a chuckle himself.

“That is not particularly robotic behaviour, that is human behaviour.”

Asked whether Rishi Sunak had deliberately not used the disputed £2,000 tax rise figure he deployed in the first debate between the leaders, farming minister Mark Spencer said: "I don't know the direct answer to that, but we stand by that figure.

"Actually that's a very generous figure. When you look at all of the analytics that we've done, where the Labour Party have said it will cost between £150m and £200m, we've taken the £150m, so we've always taken the lower figure."