The British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was on the attack on Tuesday in his first election debate with the Labour candidate and big favorite according to the polls, Keir Starmer, who tried to defend himself from his opponent and project an image of statesmanship.

An agitated and, at times, aggressive Sunak resorted again and again to the alleged tax hikes that Labour plans if it comes to power, something Starmer rejected except in a few “specific cases”.

The moderator of the debate, Julie Etchingham, was forced to continually interrupt Sunak to give the floor to Starmer, who positioned himself from the outset as the defender of ordinary citizens and workers against the “chaos” of 14 years of Conservative governments.

He presented himself as a pragmatic realist, who will bring common sense back to British politics. The prime minister, as an ambitious leader with the vision and experience to see it through.

Efforts at empathy

After a brief opening speech by both candidates, the economy and healthcare formed the backbone of the first half of the face-to-face meeting, which took place in Salford (northwest England).

Sunak recalled his work as finance minister during the covid-19 pandemic, when he launched a job protection program, and said that the economic “progress” the country is making would be put at risk if the opposition came to power.

Starmer scored his first point by asking why the prime minister has brought forward the elections if he really believes his plan is working and the economy is going to recover: “That’s because he knows it’s not true and that inflation is going to rise again in the coming months.”

In the face of this, the head of government stuck to his mantra: “Labour will raise taxes, it’s in their DNA.”

Accused at times of coldness, Starmer tried to show his empathetic side when viewers in the audience in the ITV channel’s studio asked their questions in the first person.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money and I know what it’s like not to be able to pay the bills. At one point, our phones were cut off. I don’t think the prime minister understands your position,” I told one woman who had recounted her problems making ends meet.

The Labor leader – who polls give a landslide victory on July 4 – also drew applause in the segment devoted to health and education, two public services that have suffered significant deterioration in recent years.

Sunak grows on immigration and defense

However, the second segment of the debate seemed more conducive to Sunak, who defended his plan to deport illegal immigrants to Rwanda and portrayed his opponent as a person without the capacity to make tough and important decisions.

In one of the starkest contrasts of the night, the prime minister suggested he would be willing to disregard decisions of the European Court of Human Rights to “protect the borders.” Starmer, a prosecutor by profession, made it clear that he would always respect the rulings of that court.

“I don’t think Labour can be trusted to protect this country,” Sunak attacked.

In their closing remarks, both stressed how they intend to position themselves ahead of the election.

“I’m not going to pretend I have a magic wand, but a pragmatic plan to change the UK with common sense,” said Starmer.

The prime minister replied, “With Starmer, you don’t know what you’ll get, except more taxes. In uncertain times, we can’t afford an uncertain prime minister.”

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