‘Rishi comes out swinging’: what the papers say after the UK’s first election debate


The first TV debate of the election campaign turned out to be a fiery matchup, with mixed views across Wednesday’s front pages despite a snap poll showing 51% of people thought Rishi Sunak performed best, with 49% voting for Sir Keir Starmer.

The Guardian leads with “Leaders clash on migration, tax and NHS in ill-tempered debate”. Political correspondent Eleni Courea notes that Starmer “hammered the Conservative record after 14 years in government”, while Sunak sought to portray the Labour leader as an “unreliable politician who was pursuing power for power’s sake”.

The Telegraph has “Starmer on the ropes over tax”, highlighting one of the major themes of the debate; Sunak’s continued assertion that analysis shows a black hole in Labour’s spending plans that would inevitably lead to higher taxes.

Post-debate fact checks noted that Sunak’s calculations were based on assumptions set out by Conservative-appointed political advisers and are also heavily contested by Labour.

Despite the unproven nature of that claim, other papers were quick to jump on it, with the Express even claiming that it handed Sunak a “knockout blow”.

Under the headline “Kapow! Feisty Rishi floors Starmer over £2,000 tax rise”, the paper describes the PM’s performance as “rumbustious”.

“Fiery Rishi comes out swinging – and lands big blows” is the headline in the Mail, which also highlights Sunak’s claims over Labour tax rises.

The paper’s panel of viewers rated Sunak as having “‘trust factor’ but Sir Keir was ‘more relatable’” The Mail says the panel also said the debate was “bad-tempered” and told viewers “nothing”.

Scotland’s Daily Record however has a different reading, saying “Sunak loses the plot in TV debate”.

Under the headline “All over bar the shouting”, the paper says that the PM “showed voters the general election is a lost cause as he resorted to shouting over Keir Starmer”.

The i says the debate saw both leaders “falter under pressure”. Claiming that the “angry TV clash” was the moment the election “ignites”, the paper also notes that Starmer was “slow to deny Sunak’s claim about £2,000 tax hikes”.

The Mirror relegates the debate to a small container on its front page, but highlights that there were “groans” for Sunak over claims made about the NHS.

After Starmer pointed to the fact that NHS waiting lists had risen under Sunak’s leadership, the prime minister responded that they were “coming down from where they were when they were higher”. It was this comment that drew laughter from the audience.

The Times leads with “Labour accused on tax as Sunak comes out fighting”. Both leaders traded personal attacks, the paper’s political editor writes, while analysis from Matthew Parris noted that “from time to time this debate descended into over-prepared stuffing”.

His commentary concludes by saying “we saw two men, whose plans do not radically differ and who both sounded like decent chaps, apparently a bit stumped about what to do next.”