BBC’s Last Prime Ministerial Debate: Sunak won’t go down without a fight

BBC’s Prime Ministerial Debate last Wednesday saw Sunak and Starmer come to blows in a public arena for the last time ahead of the General Election this coming Thursday.

It has not been smooth sailing along this campaign for the Conservative Party nor the Labour Party, with this week’s debate set amidst betting scandals from both sides, highlighting the lack of integrity and honesty the British public sense our politicians hold. Wednesday’s broadcast also could not fail to pick up voices and cheers of pro-Palestine protesters marching outside the hosting Nottingham Trent University building, with presenter Mishal Husain verifying its occurrence as an ‘important aspect of our democracy’. The nature of the protest, however, was neglected from the agenda. Unlike previous televised debates disappointingly no references towards Palestine, Israel or the conflict as a whole were made, despite this being the perfect setting for leaders, underpinned by the shouting from outside to voice the attitudes of the British public.

The first half hour saw much contention over benefits and job security, with Sunak clamouring for a need for a lower welfare bill with decreased numbers of health-related or disability benefit claimants. Both the Conservative and Labour party line agrees that people are better off in work where they can work, with jobs providing a trifecta of ‘security’, ‘purpose’ and ‘dignity’. For Starmer however, individuals are prevented from entering work by a broken JobCentre system, alongside spiralling NHS waiting lists that keep people from working to their full capacity and ensure individuals must rely on health benefits. It is this – generated by 14 years of Tory failure – that have proven the recipe to the multiplying welfare bill, up 60% in recent years. Sunak’s opinion instead seemed tinged with the anti-claimant dogma we expect from the Daily Mail or Saints and Scroungers, hinting that too many claimants are defrauding the system through loopholes in the sick note system. This rhetoric appeared warmly received by the Nottingham audience, eliciting much applause that heralded Sunak again and again in the debate.

This debate, in fact, saw a stronger version of Rishi Sunak, cheered on by supporters – a welcome change for the Conservatives after being blatantly laughed at in debates previous. Sunak gloated over Starmer’s failure to answer yes-or-no questions, his habit of U-turning and an inability to give a concrete response to many issues. This new Sunak appeared energised for the first time since his sodden May announcement, dominating much of the debate, particularly on issues such as taxation or immigration. Perhaps the Prime Minister saw this broadcast as a last bid for support, a final grasp at undecided voters, particularly those who lean towards Reform UK’s anti-immigration stance. Yet with polls suggesting Labour still maintain a strong lead, it is possible now that the Conservatives may not even form the Official Opposition come July 5th, with Sunak himself polled to lose his seat.

Stronger moments for Starmer, however, included his reminding the public of Sunak’s anti-trans joke made back in February’s PMQs when the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey sat in Parliament. Whoops from the audience could be heard – a break from the sterile polite applause – pushing Starmer to press further with his message of dignity and respect for all and unifying the British public. Sir Keir was smiled upon when he levied that Sunak’s inability to enact useful policy originates from his ‘lived world’ being completely apart from the rest of the country, one facing a cost-of-living crisis and, as audience members reiterated, one facing difficult trading conditions post-Brexit. Starmer is hopeful towards drawing up a better deal with the EU regarding our trading relationship, as well as R&D and defence, claiming our current relationship was a rushed, botched effort by Boris Johnson. Other former Conservative Prime Ministers were also scorned, particularly Liz Truss, whose crashing of the UK economy dominated much of the discussion around economic stability. The Conservatives were forced to acknowledge the public’s frustration at the party, with Sunak’s closing statement supposedly understanding the chaos of 14 years of Conservative rule and pressing voters to not ‘surrender’ to Labour. 

The final question posed by the audience was perhaps the most relevant to Bath Time readers, shedding light on the difficult position university students face with hope being lost of homeownership or getting a good job within the UK. Under a Labour government, Starmer has pledged to build 1.5 million new homes across the country, with the coinciding implementation of a low mortgage deposit scheme ensuring that the dream of owning your own home before your 30s and 40s – or even at all – can become a reality again. Extortionate rent prices were also mentioned, with such prices meaning saving for a deposit is near-impossible, Sunak did not mention building new homes, but instead would reintroduce a new form of help-to-buy as a continuing Prime Minister, where 15% of the deposit for a mortgage could be sourced from a government loan, with first-time buyers making up just 5% on their own. Taxes re-entered the debate yet again, with a Conservative commitment to abolish stamp duty for most first-time buyers. Frustratingly, the question of achieving a well-paid skilled job was largely neglected, as well as the underlying complaint of universities ‘churning out students year-on-year’. This election, with its focus on issues such as immigration, taxes, and pensions, is unfortunately seeing parties direct much of their energy away from students and young people. It is doubtful this will change in the future unless this election sees far more young people participate – voter turnout for those aged 18-24 is historically very low. So this Thursday, please take time to vote in your constituency, and ensure the next election has a greater focus on our shared interest.

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