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A week before elections, British party leaders trade barbs during TV debate


The two candidates for the United Kingdom's next prime minister have met for their final debate before they face voters on July 4. Conservative incumbent Rishi Sunak and Labour rival Keir Starmer faced questions on taxation, the economy and a gambling scandal. Willem Marx has this report.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Keir Starmer is the former head of Britain's prosecution service and has loyally approached arguments often forensic, but also occasionally a little low energy. This event was the last moment when he might say something to damage his commanding lead in national polls that has stuck throughout this weekslong election race at around 20 points. But he stuck instead to some familiar talking points about the chaos of the Conservative Party's 14 years in power and the need for a change in the country's politics.


KEIR STARMER: I'm not surprised that after 14 years of this, people feel that the hope's been beaten out of them because the country is in such a state. They've had loads of promises made to them at the last election about what would happen which haven't been delivered on. So this is an opportunity to restore that hope.

MARX: For Sunak, who stumbled repeatedly in an election campaign that he alone decided to call last month, tonight was his last big chance to make an impact on voters' views of him. He repeated his series of attack lines on the taxation proposals of Starmer and his Labour Party.


PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: Their plans will cost hundreds of billions of pounds, hundreds of billions of pounds.

MISHAL HUSAIN: I'm just going to explain something to anyone who hasn't seen this today...

SUNAK: That is going to cost all of you thousands of pounds of tax rises. That's why I say Keir Starmer and the Labour Party are not being straight with you, so do not surrender to their tax risers.

MARX: The audience had been chosen by a polling business, not the British Broadcast Corporation - or BBC - that televised the event. It was not representative of national support for the two parties, Conservative and Labour, but rather consisted of an even number of supporters for both, as well as those who remain undecided. And it was members of the audience who asked many of the toughest questions, starting with a focus on the fact that members of both parties are currently under investigation for gambling on the actual date of this election, July 4.


HUSAIN: People are dismayed by the lack of integrity and honesty in politics today. After the recent allegations about political betting, how would you restore trust in politics?

MARX: This was the fifth time these two had debated during this entire election. But unless national polls are wrong to an unprecedented degree, it will be the final time they ever face off in their current roles.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]