Sunak’s media performance wins on the night – but was it enough?

5th June 2024

Within minutes of the debate drawing to a close, YouGov’s snap poll gave Rishi Sunak a narrow victory over Keir Starmer last night – but not the game-changing margin he needed.

Both leaders clearly had well-rehearsed strategies ahead of last night’s first televised debate and both succeeded – not just with the words they used but how they appeared under the lights.

For the prime minister, the idea was to show energy and dynamism to support his message that he was the leader with a plan for the next parliament, while Starmer wanted to play it safe and portray himself as the grown-up in the room.

But under the pressure of the studio lights, those approaches gave first blood to Sunak, with the YouGov poll showing that 51% of 1,657 viewers said he gave the best performance, compared with 49% for Starmer.

Apart from constantly talking over both his Labour counterpart and TV host Julie Etchingham – which will play well with supporters but alienate others – Sunak wanted to appear on the front foot.

This was no surprise – his party has been an average of 21 points behind in the polls since calling the election nearly two weeks ago so Sunak needed last night to be a game-changer.

Leaning slightly forward over his lectern from the beginning, Sunak smiled throughout and used lots of two-handed baton gestures to give animation and drive to his succinct points on tax.

By contrast, Starmer stood up straight with one hand on the lectern, using open hands or steepled fingers to show technical confidence and speaking slowly and calmly as he tried to remain statesmanlike even when under attack.

While Sunak interrupted and spoke up every time he heard something he didn’t like, Starmer simply rolled his eyes or silently shook his head.

This considered approach may have worked for Starmer when he was a barrister, but in a televised debate like this, opinions are already forming while he was plotting his next move. There’s no doubt the fact it took him almost an hour to dismiss Sunak’s repeated points about a £2,000 tax increase will have informed the result of that instant poll.

Sunak’s message discipline was also far narrower – bridging from public services to his one-line message on tax at every opportunity without fail, and turning a question about Trump to a point about national security within seconds.

Starmer, by contrast, sought to echo themes rather than words or phrases, with the word “change” barely making an appearance until his closing statement. Again, this might have been effective with juries, but TV viewers are quicker to make up their minds.

The combined effect was that Sunak appeared energetic and focused to his supporters (albeit hectoring and aggressive to his critics), whereas Starmer’s fans will have liked his calm authority (his opponents said he looked like a rabbit in headlights).

Etchingham used a football analogy to end the debate and, extending that, with such a commanding lead in the polls, Starmer had come to play for a draw while Sunak was chasing every ball and shooting on sight like he needed goal difference.

To some extent, both got what they set out for. Sunak definitely scored with his repeated points on tax, but his defence was missing in action when the audience laughed at him on the NHS and national service.

As a result, while Sunak will feel like he won on the night, with Starmer avoiding heavy defeat or lasting injury, the debate will have done little to change the prevailing narrative.

Whether they opt for the same match tactics in the remaining fixtures will depend on events.

By Chris Marritt, Specialist Director (Crisis & Issues) at Citypress

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