Debate day: will the election change or stick to the plan?

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Close to two weeks in and, despite many policy announcements and countless photo ops, the Conservatives have failed to change the story of this election. If anything – and Nigel Farage’s decision to stand as a candidate for Reform in Clacton adds to this – things have got worse.

The leaders’ debates provide an opportunity for Rishi Sunak to finally find a turning point. He badly needs to emerge from tonight as a clear winner, giving journalists something else to write about and the public a fresh perspective on his leadership. Having called for six debates, he has set expectations about his performance high. And he now needs to exceed them. Only a clear win will do, and even that may not be enough.

For Keir Starmer, the challenge is somewhat different. Despite a massive lead in the polls, many voters still feel that they do not know much about him. This is an opportunity to introduce himself to the country, showing that he represents not only a change from the Conservatives but that he is leadership material in his own right. Above all else, he needs to avoid any big errors in a high stress moment. The Ming vase will doubtless feel slippery in his hands as 9pm approaches.
What can we expect on health? In short, a microcosm of the wider debate. Starmer will try to focus on what he sees as 14 years of chaos, during which health service performance has fallen through the floor, placing the Prime Minister at the heart of the problem. At a time when nothing is working, he will argue, change is desperately needed. Sunak will counter that he took tough decisions when required and is a man with a plan, pointing to announcements on building more diagnostic centres, GP surgeries and making better use of pharmacists. As the UK begins to turn a corner, why put it all at risk, he will plead.

Both candidates will need to remember that they are appealing to three distinct audiences: those in the room, those watching at home and the media who are reporting it. The reactions of each will shape the others, but they will ignore any of them at their peril.
By soon after 10pm tonight, we’ll have a sense of whether one of the potential turning points in the election has passed without incident or whether we are facing a different kind of race.

Soundbite bingo 

For those wanting to play along at home, we've created bingo cards for Starmer and Sunak, including the attack lines that we can expect to hear again and again on the key issues in the debate, from health and beyond. Will you be able to get a full house of lines to take? 

Sunak Bingo Card

Download ‘Sunak Swipes’ bingo card here.

Starmer Bingo Card

Download ‘Starmer Slams’ bingo card here.

When does a debate change anything?

Election debates typically reaffirm existing trends rather than change the political weather. There are occasions, however, where debates have a dramatic impact:

  • Nixon vs Kennedy, 1960: Vice President Nixon entered the debate as the frontrunner and left looking like yesterday’s man. Having refused make up, he was exposed by the telegenic Kennedy, a nimble debater who appeared sharper and surer of himself. The debate launched Kennedy on the national stage, giving him the momentum to overtake Nixon and win the Presidency by the narrowest of margins

  • Cleggmania, 2010: Leaders’ debates were a new innovation in 2010 and pre-game speculation focused on how Gordon Brown, perceived to be a fragile debater, would fare against David Cameron, who was known for his fluent performances. However, it was Nick Clegg who stole the show with audiences, who overwhelmingly gave him the victory in post-game polls, launching so-called ‘Cleggmania.’ It didn’t last. The Liberal Democrats were actually net-losers in terms of seats.

  • Nicola Sturgeon emerges as a national force, 2015: Less than a decade ago the SNP held only six Westminster seats. Riding a pro-SNP wave after the failed independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon introduced herself to audiences south of the border with a strong debate performance. Stood next to David Cameron, she won plaudits for the way she challenged the Prime Minister and connected with the audience. The SNP virtually swept the board, winning 56 of 59 Scottish constituencies

The impact debates can have: looking back to the CDF in 2010

By Mike Birtwistle, Senior Counsel

For an opposition leader bidding to become Prime Minister, debates are as much about reassuring voters that you can be trusted on your perceived weaknesses as they are about scoring ‘wins’ on your strengths. For David Cameron in 2010, this meant he needed a strong performance on the NHS. NHS patients were enjoying record-low waits, quality had improved and satisfaction was high. Set against this, the Conservatives had not been trusted on the NHS for many years.

Armed with a freshly-announced policy to create a Cancer Drugs Fund, Cameron chose to pivot to the issue every opportunity he had. The policy had the benefit of being simple, salient (the issue of patients being denied drugs that their doctors wanted to prescribe had been covered extensively in the media) and a dividing line (Labour had declined to match it).

The policy proved to be a useful debating tool and its prominence ensured that David Cameron’s commitment to the Fund never wavered, despite it being attacked by critics who argued that it skewed NHS priorities and delivered poor value for money. The policy has gone through several evolutions, but still exists today.