Question Time leaders’ special tonight: Updates on Starmer and rival leaders

Four major party leader made their pitches to voters via a special election debate on BBC Question Time on Thursday night, as the general election campaign enters its final fortnight.

Labour leader Keir Starmer had the third slot facing questions from a studio audience in York, at around 9pm, with Lib Dem leader Ed Davey and SNP leader John Swinney first and Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last.

Starmer faced questions on issues including immigration, renters, serving under Jeremy Corbyn, the NHS, tuition fees, his definition of a woman, funding his pledges and taxing private schools (scroll for details below).

All party leaders faced tough questions from sceptical audience members, and political commentators suggested Labour would be happy Starmer seemingly emerged without any “major mishaps” and having got key messages across.

Labour was also quick on the attack following the debate, releasing a spoof Tory national service recruitment ad referencing Sunak’s threat to withdraw young people’s access to finance or driving licences if they fail to enlist.

The party asked Sunak too on X whether he would endorse, campaign for or offer government posts to any candidates accused of betting on the timing of the election, given he had not suspended them.

Follow below for updates, reaction and analysis of the debate as it happened earlier from the LabourList team.

10.03pm: How Starmer did – what the commentators say

If you’re just joining now, we’re finishing off our coverage now, but here’s what the pundits made of Keir Starmer’s appearance earlier…

Sky News political editor Beth Rigby noted there were “no major mishaps” and Starmer managed to get key messages across in his stint in front of viewers shortly before Sunak’s (scroll below for more on his answers earlier).

“This is a tough audience and Starmer did not have an easy time here. But he won over the room on the trans issue when he talked about the Brits being tolerant people are appealing to the audience and viewers to end the toxicity around this debate.”

Luke Tryl of More in Common said: “Think Starmer will be quite happy with that. Tough start on Corbyn, but on everything else there was nothing that tripped him up and at this stage no news is good news.”

But Natasha Clark of LBC said Starmer took “longer to get to his points than usual”.

She wrote on X: “More vague with answers than in previous outings… not sure audience seem more convinced when he speaks for longer. Think he’s better when shorter, punchier, more impactful?”

Meanwhile the BBC’s Faisal Islam said: “Starmer says Labour have a ‘fully costed workforce plan’ for NHS… the IFS once costed last year’s NHS England’s workforce plan (upping staff from 1.5m to 2.3-2.4m by 2036) at £50bn a year, and that is certainly not in the Labour manifesto…”

10.02pm: How Sunak did – what the commentators say

The Guardian’s sketchwriter John Crace put it pithily: “The audience really don’t like Rishi.”

Sky News’ Beth Rigby said Sunak was “taking questions head on”, had a “clear answer” on the gambling scandal and took it “on the chin” about NHS waiting lists, but agreed: “Sense you get is audience isn’t on his side, at all. Applause for tough questions in that room.”

The BBC’s Jessica Parker noted there were “cries of ‘shame’ from the audience – first time that’s happened tonight – as Sunak repeats his stance on the ECHR”.

The i’s Rachel Wearmouth notes the first question Sunak faced was “brutal” – it’s worth reposting here in full: “Would you confess to us tonight, even just a small amount of embarrassment to be leading the Conservative Party into this election?”

The Mirror’s Ash Cowburn said of the second question: “Sunak just looks utterly defeated as he’s asked by audience members…on allegations of betting on the election date.”

Sunak’s suggestion that young people’s “driving licences” and “access to finance” could be affected if they refuse to do national service raised a fair few eyebrows among Westminster hacks too.

The New Statesman’s George Eaton writes: “Given the Tory party’s misdemeanours, Sunak threatening to sanction young people for not doing national service is not a good look.”

10pm: Two leaders trashing their predecessors

It’s a pretty remarkable state of affairs to see the two main party leaders so ready to trash their predecessors.

After Starmer was questioned on his recent suggestion Rishi Sunak’s manifesto was “Jeremy Corbyn-like”, now Sunak has just said: “What Keir Starmer is promising you is the same fantasy that Liz Truss did.”

9.59pm: Special over

Rishi Sunak has finished speaking, bringing the special to a close.

9.52pm: Timing of the election

“It was the right moment to call the election” – Sunak defends his decision to call the election in July, despite his party’s poor standing in the opinion polls.

9.50pm: Immigration debate continues

Sunak is facing a grilling over his promises and record on both legal and illegal immigration.

He adds that “we have flights ready to go” to Rwanda if he is re-elected as Prime Minister.

9.41: Healthcare pledges

Sunak is now facing challenges over his record on NHS waiting lists – which was one of his key pledges announced at the start of last year.

“We haven’t made as much progress as I would have liked” on NHS waiting lists, but says he is putting record levels of investment into the health service.

9.37: National Service debate

The Prime Minister is challenged over his National Service plans – and asked about his plans for sanctions on young people who refused.

He says there are a range of options available.

9.31: Election date bets controversy

Rishi Sunak is up now after Starmer’s session came to a close. Sunak is questioned on ethics and standards in public life following allegations of officials putting bets on the election date.

The Prime Minister says he is “incredibly angry” over these allegations and says that anyone who has broken the rules should face the “full force of the law”.

9.29pm: Starmer ‘most animated when talking about healing divisions’

Political journalist Rachel Wearmouth notes the audience in the room seemed to appreciate Starmer’s answer on trans rights. He had ended his point by noting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had made a trans joke while the mother of a transgender teenager was listening in from the public viewing gallery in the Commons.

9.28: Renters’ protections

Starmer reiterates his pledges to end bidding wars for rents and bring in further protections for renters.

Read LabourList‘s coverage of his promise here.

This brings Starmer’s questions to an end. Sunak up next.

9.25pm: Starmer goes further on immigration

It’s notable that while Starmer said Britain needs “balanced” immigration, looking at what the economy and employers need, he wants to see immigration come down “significantly”.

But he declined to put a figure on it, saying too many Tory politicians had broken specific promises on immigration.

9.23pm: Private schools debate

The Labour leader flatly says “no I don’t” when asked if he thinks the party’s plan to remove VAT exemption on private school fees will put further strain on the state sector.

9.21pm: ‘I agree with Tony’

Starmer says he agrees “with what Tony Blair said” about biology when asked about views on sex and gender.

“I was worried about the way in which the debate was being conducted” he adds. He references a “shocking” moment when the Prime Minister made a “trans joke” in the presence of the mother of Brianna Ghey in parliament.

9.20pm: Rare Starmer concessions to Corbyn

It’s intriguing that while Starmer noted earlier that the 2019 manifesto landed Labour with its worst result in decades and called it “overloaded” and not fully funded, he made two concessions to Corbyn tonight.

Firstly, Starmer said there were aspects of the 2019 manifesto that the electorate “quite liked some of” – there was just “too much” and the electorate wanted fully costed plans.

Then after repeatedly trying to avoid directly addressing why he once backed Corbyn to be Prime Minister while a member of his shadow cabinet, Starmer acknowledged Corbyn would have been a better leader than Boris Johnson. But he repeatedly used the same line he has used recently about it not crossing his mind that Corbyn would actually win.

9.15pm: Tuition fee debate

Starmer faces questions over his previous support for abolishing university tuition fees.

He points to the economic crises now facing Britain, saying the money is not there for him to do everything he might want – saying he wants to prioritise bringing down waiting lists.

9.11pm: Fixing the NHS

The Labour leader is asked about the problems facing the NHS, and he notes the perpetual cycle of winter crises faced by the health service.

He says he thinks one of the biggest problems in politics is people “not being honest about how long it’s actually going to take” to fix problems.

9.07pm: Rising right wing populism

Starmer is asked about how he would deal with the growing number of hardline right wing governments across Europe.

He says: “I’m worried about some of the tendencies across Europe,” and adds that he believes there are “progressive answers” to the problems faced.

9.04pm: No more taxes?

Starmer repeats the Labour Party line that there would be no increase in VAT, income tax or National Insurance under his government.

But he faces questions over where the money his public spending pledges would come from.

He says: “I want to see our public services run properly.”

9.02pm: Oh Jeremy Corbyn?

Starmer is immediately challenged over his past voiced support for the 2019 manifesto and campaigning for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

He reiterates that he wanted to see good colleagues returned to parliament and that he has always campaigned for Labour.

Fiona Bruce doesn’t let him off the hook, presenting him with his past statements in which he said Jeremy Corbyn would have been a good Prime Minister.

8.58: Starmer up now

Keir Starmer takes to the stage for questions.

8.55pm: Who is better for Scotland?

John Swinney is asked whether he thinks Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak would be better for Scotland.

He says he thinks it is a “certainty” the Labour Party will win the election, but hopes for a strong voice for Scotland in elected representation.

8.46pm: Labour v Conservatives?

Swinney takes a swipe at both the Conservatives and Labour over austerity, calling for greater investment in public services.

8.40pm: Another independence referendum?

Swinney is being challenged over an SNP stance on making a general election a de facto second referendum.

He is also asked if whether a failure to secure more than half of Scottish seats in the House of Commons would mean a second referendum had been rejected.

8.35pm: Swinney faces tough questions on SNP dramas

John Swinney is facing a grilling over the crises facing the Scottish National Party in recent months – following the short-lived leadership of Humza Yousaf and legal dramas facing the party.

An audience member accuses the SNP, which has dominated Scotland in electoral politics for the best part of a decade, of being “complacent”.

Swinney in turn has bemoaned the polarisation in politics faced today.

8.30pm: SNP leader John Swinney up next

Ed Davey has now finished his questions from the audience. SNP leader John Swinney is up now.

8.29pm: Roundup: How did Ed Davey do?

Sky News political editor Beth Rigby noted: “Tough questions for Ed Davey. Pressed on coalition years and broken promises, his role as Post Office minister and Horizon scandal, spending commitments, character & post-election plans (won’t answer another coalition Q). Handled it and avoided any big blow ups.

For comedian Juliet Meyers, Ed Davey gave off the “vibe of man in couples therapy having to acknowledge his past mis(lib)demeanors”.

The Atlantic’s Tom McTague seemed to agree that “one of the problems with our political leaders is that they all look like they are pleading with voters to like them and trust them”.

“Some good moments and decent, polished answers. But too many pleading smiles and too obviously dodged answers.”

Meanwhile the i’s political journalist Rachel Wearmouth notes applause twice at questions
about tuition fees.

8.20pm: Davey’s tuition fee grilling is a further gift for Labour

With Starmer attracting more attention than any other leader over policy rowbacks in recent years given the scale of the retreat from the pledges that once saw him elected Labour leader, the focus now on the Lib Dems’ great tuition fee U-turn is also a boon for Labour.

Grilled by an audience member angry about the cost of their own education, Davey had to acknowledge the Lib Dems’ choice to hike fees having campaigned to scrap them had proved “very scarring” for his party.

He acknowledges the breach of trust with younger generations, although adds: “You shouldn’t promise what you can’t deliver.”

8.13pm: Will Labour strategists feel vindicated?

The fact the first question in this debate seemed to use Labour’s spending plans as its reference point for what a healthy level of public spending should be will delight senior Labour figures.

Many Labour folk haunted by recent elections may also feel relieved to see the Lib Dems and not Labour the target of prime-time claims by the first audience member to speak that they will “bankrupt the country”.

She suggested the Lib Dems were going to spend multiple times what Labour is.

That said – a fair few others in Labour will have seen charts comparing various parties’ tax-and-spend plans in recent weeks, and found it disappointing Labour isn’t outspending the Lib Dems and Tories…

Davey suggested other parties were “not putting the money in that public services need”.

8.11pm: Davey slams two child limit

“I think the two child limit on Universal Credit is just wrong,” Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey tells audiences.

He has also defended his campaign stunts and Lib Dem record in Coalition.

Expect the SNP’s John Swinney to hammer Labour on the two-child cap too tonight, among other things, ramping up yet more pressure on Labour over the issue.

With such strong feeling on it not just across the left but well beyond, Labour’s continued refusal to commit to reversing the two-child benefit cap has proved a thorn in Starmer’s side that just won’t heal….

8.01pm: Who’s excited?

Guardian sketch writer John Crace isn’t…

8.00pm: Get ready to start

The election special is about to start. Stay posted here for the lastest updates.

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey is set to appear first before audiences.

7.35pm: Good evening everyone

Welcome to LabourList’s live blog for the BBC Question Time election special.

We’ll be keeping you up to date all the way through the evening as the four major party leaders face questions.

Keir Starmer will be up third out of fourth this evening – with each leader getting a 30 minute slot.

In the meantime, keep up with our election coverage here.

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