UK's Sunak prepares for first TV debate amid 'election crisis'

AFP , Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hunkered down Tuesday as he prepared to go head-to-head with Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer in the first televised debate of the UK general election campaign on the back foot.

Britain s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Caroline Newton, second right, Henley and Thame constituenc
Britain s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Caroline Newton, second right, Henley and Thame constituency parliamentary candidate, visit Leander Rowing Club as he campaigns in Henley-on-Thames, England, Monday, June 3, 2024. AP


It comes with Sunak under intense pressure to reset the Tories' faltering campaign following the release of two polls Monday showing they face defeat in a historic landslide on July 4.

The embattled leader also faces the perilous prospect of the right-wing vote splitting between the Conservatives and Nigel Farage's Reform party, after the Brexit figurehead U-turned Monday and announced he will stand as a candidate.

Farage's announcement grabbed headlines and he was set to officially launch his campaign in the seaside resort of Clacton, east of London.

His arrival into the fray diverted attention away from the hour-long debate between Sunak and Starmer, which was due to start at 2000 GMT, and saw both quizzed by the audience.

Sunak will reportedly spend the entire day off the campaign trail preparing for the clash, with his performance seen as critical to his party's fortunes -- and the threat posed by Farage.

The Tory-backing Daily Mail called the situation "Rishi's darkest hour", while the left-leaning Mirror said he was facing an "election crisis".


Poll woes

Sunak announced the election on May 22, calling it six months earlier than required and making an inauspicious start in a widely mocked rain-sodden speech outside 10 Downing Street.

Labour has enjoyed double-digit poll leads for 18 months and that has held firm nearly two weeks into the campaign, with Britons appearing weary of the Conservatives after 14 years in power.

A YouGov survey Monday -- using the same nationwide modelling that correctly predicted the 2017 and 2019 general elections -- showed Labour on track to win 422 of the 650 seats in parliament.

That prediction would mean Labour winning its best-ever election result, the poll also predicted the Conservatives would suffer their worst defeat in more than a century and see a host of senior ministers ousted.

Another poll from More in Common using similar modelling suggested a Labour majority of 114.

Both were carried out before Farage announced his decision to run for the anti-immigration Reform UK party and return as its leader.

The move came less than two weeks after the populist ex-member of the European Parliament, who has failed seven times to become a British MP, had said he would not stand.

His decision could divert key votes away from the Tories in numerous seats, and help Labour seize power for the first time since 2010.

But interior minister James Cleverly downplayed the significance of the polls while warning against supporting Farage's party.

"We are focusing exclusively on the one poll that matters, which is the one on the 4th of July," he told Sky News on Tuesday.

"Keir Starmer would love people to vote reform because he knows that a vote for Reform basically opens the door to a Labour government."



Sunak, 44, has made a series of headline-grabbing promises in the campaign's early days in a bid to appease right-wingers who want him to be tougher on immigration and law and order.

They include vowing to introduce a form of national service for 18-year-olds, restrict taxes on pensioners' incomes and amend Britain's equality law so that biological sex alone would determine who could use single-sex spaces.

On Tuesday, the party pledged to impose an annual cap on immigration.

Starmer, 61, has been playing it much safer, seeking to reassure voters that Labour will responsibly marshal the economy and Britain's defence as the centre-left party seeks to protect its lead.

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