Lancashire Times
Weekend Edition
Richard Trinder
Managing Editor
6:05 PM 20th June 2024

The Leaders Debate: BBC Question Time At York

BBC Election Debate in York 2024
BBC Election Debate in York 2024
With just two weeks to go until the 'snap' election called by Rishi Sunak is concluded we're here in the media room - accurately referred to as the 'spin room' - where we're dripping with cabinet ministers and media representatives from around the country.

Desperate to influence every single voter, the ministers seem intent on getting as much face time as possible with the many TV, radio, social media and blog channels represented here.

Ed Davey - Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Ed Davey
Ed Davey
Starting with tax rises to raise funds for significant new spending, the banks, the oil industry and social media giants are right in Ed Davey's firing line.

Differentiating himself clearly from the other parties, Ed Davey says NHS is on its knees and mental health provision is inadequate and the Liberal Democrats are prepared to raise extra funds from taxes.

A round of applause came from the audience for Ed Davey mentioning the pollution in rivers, lakes and streams.

"Two child limits for Universal Credit has to go" as the faster way to alleviate child poverty.

My aim, says Ed Davey, is to "rebuild trust". "How can we trust you", asks an audience member, after the University tuition fee debacle from the coalition government.

Capital Gains Tax on millionaires and billionaires is a key target for raising tax revenue.

Ed Davey was Post Office Minister in 2010, and refused at the time to meet Alan Bates. Ed Davey has confessed to making mistakes at the time, but claims to have been misled by officials and Post Office representatives at the time.

Snap verdict: Davey faced some tricky questions about tuition fees and his role as post office minister, but acquitted himself well, coming across as serious and empathetic.

John Swinney - First Minister of Scotland and SNP leader

John Swinney. Photo © BBC
John Swinney. Photo © BBC
SNP accused of complacency. Swinney says he tries to work hard to bring people together - and gets a round of applause.

Asked whether the SNP will keep seeking independence referenda until he gets the result he wants, Swinney says he believes people have the right to self-determine their future.

Fiona Bruce presses Swinney on whether he would accept that is the SNP does not get a majority they will not seek another referendum. Swinney ducks the question and Bruce says she assumes that means 'no'.

"How can we have confidence in the party as it seems to have destroyed itself from the top down", asks an audience member. Swinney claims that Scotland is growing faster than any other part of the UK.

"How will the NHS in Scotland be fixed without a larger block grant from the UK." Swinney accepts that there's a real challenge and it needs more funding. He also points to silence from the Tories and Labour about NHS underfunding.

"Scotland voted emphatically to remain in the EU. The opposite came to pass", says Swinney. "The sooner we can get back into the European Union the better'.

"Why is the SNP backtracking on their climate promises?", asks an audience member. Swinney: "The journey to net zero is absolutely inescapable". He wants to work with the old and gas industry to make the transition. That may include issuing new oil and gas licences.

Snap verdict: Swinnet faced some very different questions fromn Ed Davey and spoke at length around the subject of independence. He came across as sincere and won several rounds of applause.

Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer. Photo © Labour Party
Keir Starmer. Photo © Labour Party
Starmer is challenged by Fiona Bruce on supporting Jeremy Corbyn's budget in the last election. He ducks the issue several times.

How can you increase defence spending without increasing tax? "Defence is the first priority for any government, and we will find the money, and for the NHS."

"With increasingly right wing governments in Europe, how will you work with them?". Starmer admits that he is worried about these changes.

Bruce: When we can expect to see an improvement in waiting lists? Starmer: "We'll get started on day one" - using teams who have already succeeded in reducing waiting lists as exemplars. He initially declines to give a timescale to complete this task, but ultimately;y say sit will take a full parliament.

Queried about U-turns, Starmer says it's about choice and the money available after 14 years of the Conservatives.

Starmer was asked about the level of immigration. He refused to put a specific number on it, but accepts the level of immigration needs to be greatly reduced.

Bruce: How can you possibly plan for housing growth if you don't have a specific level for immigration? Starmer doesn't answer.

Gender issues were discussed. Starmer agrees with Tony Blair - men have penises and women have vaginas. Starmer also wants a more tolerant view of people who define themselves in different ways.

Starmer: Politics needs to return to become a service, not an opportunity to progress the individual (referencing the recent gambling issues).

Starmer gives a robust defence of his plan to apply VAT to private school fees.

Snap verdict: Starmer can be very effective on some topics but frustratingly evasive on others. He clearly wants to avoid giving any extra attack lines to the Conservatives, but this can lead to appearing not always to be totally honest. He still appears to be a PM in waiting though.

Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak
Sunak faced a difficult first question about whether he is embarrassed by his predecessors. Sunak answered with his standard answer about sticking to the plan.

There is a round of applause for a question relating to the lack of ethics evident in the Conservative staff being investigated for inappropriate gambling on the election date. Sunak says he will "boot out" anyone found to have broken the law around this.

Brexit. "Why are you saying how great Brexit has been for us?" "Has Brexit denied young people a future?" Sunak: doesn't want to relitigate. He wants to look to the future and references Freeports as an example of what can be done now, and were not possible in the EU.

Waiting lists: Sunak - claimed to be putting record investment in the NHS, but hasn't made as much progress as he would like. Six million missed referrals during Covid have left a lasting legacy.

Migration: Sunak says "Net level of migration is forecast to fall by 30% over the next year". "We cannot support an unlimited number of people coming here who are not working".

Sunak says that he is willing to leave the ECHR, to a smattering of applause. An audience member responds that only Russian and Belarus do not subscribe to the ECHR, to louder applause. There are cries of "shame" as Sunak reiterates he would leave this "foreign" court.

Snap verdict: Sunak faced a different set of questions again, as - unlike the other leaders - he was forced to defend his government's record. Initially Sunak made a better impression than at some of the other debates, being more measured and considered, but became more assertive and louder as time went on. The final impression left was some of the audience crying "shame" at him.

An instant wrap-up comment from political pundit and Professor of Psychology, Peter Bull

Wes Streeting - interview and wrap up comments

When asked about Keir Starmer's inability to answer the questions about his previous support for Jeremy Corbyn,Wes Streeting (Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care since 2021) told us that the decision that Keir Starmer (and Tom Watson) made was to "try and stop the Labour Party from experiencing an extinction level event. It really was that serious. Let's not forget that Keir Starmer was one of the majority of Labour MPs who voted no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, who resigned from Jeremy Corbyn's front bench. And then when Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected made a choice to stop the complete extinction of the Labour Party."