LONDON — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the Conservative Party met the opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer Tuesday night in their first one-on-one debate of Britain’s general election campaign, facing tough questions from the skeptical audience about the high cost of living, long waiting times to get health care and the sorry state of the education.

Sunak said he was the leader who had a plan to solve all this. Just you wait, Sunak stressed, things will get better. Wages will rise, inflation will fall, and another Conservative government will not tax you to death.

Starmer accused Sunak of trying to distance himself from the past 14 years of Conservative rule.

“I know the prime minister has already said in the first however minutes of this debate that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the last 14 years, I’m sorry, Prime Minister, you may want to cast it off, but everybody else is living with it,” Starmer said.

The two were almost breathless, talking over each other about how they would improve the lives of ordinary Britons. The moderator on ITV kept asking them to take a pause.

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They only time they were still was when they were asked to promise they wouldn’t raise taxes. Neither could make the promise. Britain is in a hole, financially.

Starmer charged that the Conservatives had “lost control” of the economy, and that Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, had “wrecked it.”

Lines about “fairness” got applause. Sunak said it wouldn’t be fair to raise taxes to pay young doctors more than they’d already been offered. Starmer stressed that it would be fair for the super rich to pay more taxes.

There was a question by Paula about the cost of living. She said she spends her weekends batch-cooking so she doesn’t have to turn her oven on at peak times.

Starmer stressed that “my dad worked in a factory, he was a toolmaker, my mom was a nurse, we didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, we were in a position on occasion where we couldn’t pay our bills, so I know how that feels. In our particular case, we had our phone cut off … I don’t think the prime minister quite understands the position that you and other people are in.”

Sunak said that he had helped to tame inflation and Labour would raise everyone’s taxes by 2,000 pounds.

With the general election just a month away, the debate came with high stakes. As in the United States, many voters in Britain don’t follow the daily social media battles of dueling campaigns, but they do cast an eye at a prime time TV debate.

The Labour Party is coasting toward a big win, if the polls are right. So Labour wanted no drama. The goal was for Starmer to appear prime ministerial, calm, commanding, offering “change” but not too much change. Labour officials have been trying to ratchet down the radical and focus on the pocketbook issues.

For the Conservatives, hopes were much higher. Trailing in the polls, Sunak’s side was praying the prime minister could have a game-changing night.

But there was only so much he could do. Many voters have soured on the Tories after their 14 years in power and agree with Labour that it’s time to put an end to the “chaos” — the scandals and the constant musical chairs of ministerial appointments.

Sunak surprised his own party members by calling for snap elections on July 4. Many had assumed the general election would take place in the fall, giving the government more time to turn things around on the economic front and by deporting to Rwanda the first planeload of migrants who illegally crossed the English Channel.

Polling averages show Labour with 45 percent, the Conservatives with 24 percent and the upstart, rebooted Reform UK party at 11 percent. A YouGov poll released Monday suggested Starmer’s Labour could win a bigger majority than the party did under Tony Blair did in 1997 — and Conservatives could see their worst performance since 1906.

A result like that would mark a holy cow reversal of what happened in Britain’s last general election, in 2019, when Boris Johnson’s Conservatives trounced Labour’s left-wing Jeremy Corbyn under the banner “Get Brexit Done.”

Kicked out of office by his own party, Johnson is now off giving speeches. Sunak is much less entertaining — and less well-liked than Johnson at his peak. And Starmer is no Corbyn. Just the opposite. The 61-year-old former prosecutors has spent the last four years as leader of Labour, purging his party of the hard left, the Marxists, and anyone with a whiff of antisemitism.

Sunak has campaigned under the banner of security — that in an increasingly risky world (Russian tanks, Chinese ascendence, global recessions) he is man to protect the island.

Starmer has been much more cautious, sticking with Labour’s poll-tested six “first steps” if they win.

Those steps: delivering economic stability; cutting wait times for appointments at the National Health Service; cracking down on “anti-social behavior” by deploying more police; creating a publicly owned, mostly green power company; and recruiting new teachers in key subjects.



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