Debate debrief: Lots of talk but will there be change?

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Lots of talk, but will there be change?

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will both have reasons to be pleased by last night’s debate. In a feisty performance, Sunak showed that he has plenty of fight left in him, whilst a clearly nervous Starmer had some good moments connecting with the audience and largely avoided major pitfalls. Whether viewers at home found the experience to be particularly edifying or illuminating is another matter (frustration being the most used description in those polled by YouGov tells its own story) .
With the health service topping the list of the public’s voting priorities, it was no surprise to see waiting times raised early in the debate. It was also not a shock that the exchanges on the NHS produced no real flashpoints – the dynamics that have kept it in the background so far on the campaign were in full effect.

For the most part, Sunak saved his feisty front-foot attacks for issues that he believes he can win on (and which he hopes will help fend off the challenge from Reform) – tax, support for pensioners, immigration. He did seek to press Starmer on how he would resolve strikes, but this only served to highlight that his chosen theme of the evening, his ‘clear plan’, had perhaps not been selected with the NHS in mind. 
Starmer stuck to his campaign mode – refusing to be drawn on making specific commitments beyond tried and tested lines on the waiting list, while attacking the government’s track record. However, there were some signs that he feels more comfortable on the NHS than some of the other debate battlegrounds. He needled the Prime Minister on the assertion that the backlog was falling, managing to put Sunak on the back foot as he conceded that the waiting list was coming down "from where they were when they were higher". 
The format of the debate, perhaps understandably focused on churning through as many topics as possible at top speed, also did not serve to disrupt the pattern of the campaign by putting a spotlight on underdiscussed issues – both men were allowed to claim that they would have “fully funded" plans for social care in their manifestos, with no time for these somewhat dubious claims to be properly interrogated.
As we move through debate (and interview) season, the NHS will continue to be raised. Perhaps other formats will enable more detailed discussion and examination. However, with YouGov's post-debate snap poll demonstrating Starmer’s clear lead on the health service (61 to 28), it’s likely that the Conservatives will continue to seek to drive the narrative elsewhere. If the polls stay as they are, we may only really see the key questions start to be answered after 5 July.

Shared spoils? The view from the snap polls

YouGov’s snap poll gave a very narrow victory to the Prime Minister, pipping Keir Starmer by a couple of points overall. That Sevanta shows a lead for Starmer demonstrates that it will probably be viewed as a score draw. While he didn’t land any knock out blows, Sunak's team may be encouraged by his combative performance and his success in pivoting the conversation back to tax. However, the £2,000 tax rise attack was primarily effective as it took nearly an hour for Starmer to land a clear(ish) rebuttal.

This in itself may give Sunak hope that he can trip Starmer up when they meet again, but it is clear that he faces a significant uphill battle to win over the public. Beneath the overall headline numbers, the detailed issue-by-issue results tell the real story of the scale of the task. For YouGov, Starmer came out on top on the NHS, cost of living, climate change and education, with Sunak just ahead on immigration and only holding a clear lead on tax. Sevanta has Starmer ahead on every major issue.

ITV Debate slide - Sunak vs Starmer

Given their personal polling ratings, it was no surprise to see Starmer come out on top in relation to key personality-based questions – trustworthiness, likability and being in touch with ordinary people. However, there were a few numbers that will give Starmer and his team pause – Sunak held a small lead on ‘Prime Ministerial’, while it seems that his strategy of playing to traditional Conservative strongpoints may have paid off, with only 15% of 2019 Conservative voters calling the debate for Starmer.

It remains to be seen whether the performance will shift the polls, but it seems likely that last night’s performance will set the template for the rest of the campaign – we can expect more attacks on tax and immigration, while Labour will continue to seek to fight on the government’s track record on the NHS and economy.