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The big questions to watch out for as Sunak and Starmer clash in first TV debate

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will go head-to-head on Tuesday evening in the first TV debate since the general election was called.

From 9pm, the pair will be asked questions both by the ITV presenter and the audience across the hour-long programme.

Though the pair have regularly faced off against each other at Prime Minister’s Questions over the past year, this will be the first time that they have been cross-examined by the public on the same programme.

Here are some of the topics that may come up:

Questions for Sunak

The Conservatives have made their battle lines clear in recent weeks, with attention-grabbing announcements including the return of national service, the new “triple lock plus” and plans to reform the Equality Act to protect “biological sex”.

The challenge for Sunak is that, unlike his opponent, he will have to defend his party’s record in Government as well as his plans for the future.

After 14 years in power, there is plenty that the Conservatives can be called up on, including several pledges the Prime Minister has made since he took office.

Why have the Conservatives failed to fix the NHS?

Sunak began his campaign by making five pledges he wanted the public to judge him against, one of which was cutting NHS waiting lists.

On that count, he appears to have failed, as the total number of people awaiting treatment is still higher than it was when he made the promise.

Very little of the Conservatives’ election campaign so far has focused on its plans for the NHS – an issue high on the minds of many voters.

The big question for Sunak, then, is why he has not made more progress during his time at No 10, and why the public should trust him to fix the NHS if he were to be granted another stint in office?

Why have immigration levels risen under the Conservatives?

The Conservatives announced on the morning of the first televised debate that it would bring in visa caps to cut legal migration if the party wins the election.

This is a crucial battle area for the Conservatives against not only Labour but also the threat of Reform UK, which has said it wants to make this an “immigration election”.

Net migration hit a record high of 745,000 in 2022 and is still almost triple the levels it was before the Conservatives took power in 2010.

Meanwhile, the party has spent the past two years in power trying, and so far failing, to bring the flights to Rwanda into operation.

Sunak is likely to be quizzed, therefore, as to why his party has struggled to cut immigration levels, and why it chose not to bring in measures such as the visa cap sooner.

Why are the Conservatives focused on ‘woke’ issues?

There was some disquiet within the Conservative Party on Monday after the Prime Minister announced he planned to reform the Equality Act to ensure gender-based protections only apply to “biological sex”.

The move aimed to make it easier for public institutions such as prisons and hospitals to prevent transgender people from entering single-sex spaces.

Sunak has also frequently criticised Sir Keir Starmer for his stance on gender issues, claiming he “doesn’t know what a woman is”.

The Prime Minister may now be quizzed, however, on why his party has chosen to campaign on this issue rather than on other concerns facing the public.

Questions for Starmer

The polls are currently clearly pointing towards a Labour victory in the election on 4 July, so the big questions to Starmer are likely to focus on his plans for power.

While the presenter is likely to want to quiz the Labour leader on his policies, the Prime Minister is certain to pull him up on his past record both in opposition and his time as director of public prosecutions.

How can the public trust him after he’s watered down past pledges?

The Conservatives have frequently criticised Starmer for reneging on many of the pledges he has made, claiming he “flip-flops” on key issues.

But this is something the public might also want answers on. Some of the promises dropped or watered down by the party include spending £38bn on green energy, removing charitable status from private schools, scrapping tuition fees and protecting workers rights.

If the Labour leader is on track to become the next Prime Minister, voters may want to know if they can rely on him to keep his word on the issues they care about.

Will Labour raise taxes if the party wins power?

Labour has denied that it would not raise the tax burden, which is currently at the highest level since the Second World War, if it wins power.

The Conservatives, however, have claimed that many of Labour’s pledges are unfunded and that this will likely lead to tax rises for working families.

Starmer is likely to be grilled, therefore, on whether his sums add up and if he can really do all that he has promised without increasing taxes.

He may also be asked when the public can expect to see its tax rates fall as the country exits a difficult economic period following the pandemic and amid the continuing war in Ukraine.

Can he lead a united Labour Party after years of division?

Last week was a challenging one for the Labour Party amid anger over reports that veteran MP Diane Abbott was being barred from standing.

While she has since been allowed to stand again, there has also been criticism of Labour’s decision to deselect or block many left-wing candidates from standing in the election.

Starmer is likely to be questioned on the part he has played in selecting the next batch of potential candidates, and if the approach reveals anything about future splits that could appear in the Labour Party.

Election 2024

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer are back out on the campaign trail – and take part in the first leader’s head-to-head debate on ITV on Tuesday evening. Meanwhile, i‘s general election live blog is the go-to place for 2024 general election coverage.

The Tories have announced proposed changes to gender laws, but the focus has been on Nigel Farage following his shock move to stand as an MP and become leader of Reform UK. Not long after that announcement, the Tories revealed proposals for a new immigration cap.

On migration, Labour has said it will be prepared to process asylum seekers abroad. In London, their former leader Jeremy Corbyn, now standing as an independent candidate, has a fight on his hands to keep his supporters from switching to Starmer.

Got a question for our politics experts? Email [email protected] or tweet us @theipaper during the first live leaders’ debate and it could be answered by Jane Merrick or Hugo Gye.

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