‘No surrender’: Rishi Sunak’s election efforts look increasingly futile — and tetchy

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Last night’s BBC leaders debate saw Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak lock horns for the last time before the general election.

It also served as the forum for some of the Labour leader and prime minister’s most combative exchanges yet, with the latter in particular keen to make some last-minute advances.

Rishi Sunak, locked into damage limitation mode, repeatedly interrupted Starmer in an attempt to foreground the choice(s) at the coming election. We were treated to a selection of Sunak’s favourite dichotomies, in a bid to expose Starmer’s soft underbelly: high tax versus low tax, high migration versus low migration, gender policy nonsense versus gender policy common sense.

Starmer, for the most part, refused to engage with the thrust of the prime minister’s arguments. Sunak’s team had prepared a series of “Yes”-“No” questions for the Labour leader, relating mainly to these aforementioned talking points. Starmer duly sidestepped — highlighting that taxes and migration have both risen under Conservative rule in recent years. Rather, the Labour leader preferred to focus on the issue of integrity, as he weaved a narrative of Tory moral frivolousness from Party-gate through to Gamble-gate.

But the prime minister was armed with another rhetorical weapon: he warned voters, especially those still-undecideds who may have voted Tory in the past, not to “surrender” the country to Starmer and his reputedly dystopian designs.

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Evoking a famous Northern Irish orator-politician, Sunak urged to voters not to “surrender” to Labour — to its tax rises, to spiralling welfare bills, to further illegal migration. It was a Dr Paisley tribute act — sans, perhaps, the rhetorical force and quivering upper lip.

Starmer’s counters relied on direct appeals to the audience. “If you listened to people in the audience and across the country more often you might not be so out of touch”, the Labour leader said at one point. The line, well-prepared and well-deployed, drew applause from the audience.

For those keeping track then, the key difference between this debate and the leaders’ previous showings, was that Sunak played far more aggressively into fears about what a Labour government would do with a large majority. Neither the prime minister’s record in government nor his party’s plan for a fifth term featured particularly prominently.

Tellingly, Starmer used his final comment to say: “Vote change. Vote Labour”. Sunak declared meanwhile: “If you are not certain about Labour, don’t surrender to them.”

In the aftermath, polling company YouGov asked 1,716 viewers for their verdict on who performed best, leaving aside party preferences — the result was split 50/50. Another snap poll, conducted by More In Common with 1,525 respondents, found 56 per cent said Starmer won, versus 44 per cent who said Sunak did.

Today, the prime minister continues to roll out his “surrender” pitch with a new social media advert. Depicting an older man, a woman and a schoolchild facing backwards with their hands up, it reads: “Don’t surrender your family’s future to Labour.”

The approach would seem an extension of the Conservative Party’s “super-majority” strategy: the subtext suggests that while Rishi Sunak expects to be defeated, voters shouldn’t grant Labour free rein to do as they please in government.

The subtle shift in emphasis comes, moreover, as Reform UK has noticed a slight drop in its polling numbers over recent days — in the wake of Nigel Farage’s much-criticised comments on the Ukraine War. Sunak, it would seem, senses an opportunity to take advantage.

In this regard, I happen to think Sunak’s “no surrender” ploy is a rather more effective tactic than its “super-majority” precursor. With the former, the assumption of defeat is somewhat less explicit; as such, rather than sucking the remaining life out of the Conservative election machine, the emphasis on taking the battle to Labour could energise Tory activists in the campaign’s final stretch. Will it make any discernible difference? Frankly, I doubt it  — the polls remain oh so stubborn.

But the broader risk of this strategy, combative and brutish as it is, is that it allows Starmer to present as more prime ministerial. We saw this last night, with the Labour leader at one point lecturing Sunak: “I think you should show some respect to the audience who want to know what I’ve got to say without being interrupted.”

It points to a broader presentational problem for Rishi Sunak — one which has dogged his 18-month-long premiership. Under pressure, he is forced to find an appropriate balance between impassioned aggression and tetchiness. A week out from polling day, it still isn’t clear the prime minister has found the correct footing.

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