What Really Went On Behind The Scenes At Last Night's Election Debate

HuffPost UK was there to cover all the 'drama' as Sunak and Starmer went head-to-head.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (L) and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (L) and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Handout via Getty Images

At the first leadership debate in five years, you might think that the atmosphere among political hacks would be an electric one.

But after many a lacklustre exchange at PMQs, expectations in the spin room were pretty low for Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer’s head-to-head.

Instead, there were jokes about the two failing to offer any entertainment value at all as conversations soon moved into what people ate for dinner.

To make matters worse, journalists quickly realised their media centre (in the Coronation Street Experience, no less) was pretty far removed from the party leaders.

In fact, rumour had it that hacks were technically in a different constituency to all the action, simply watching it all unfold on a giant TV screen.

Journalists were right next door to the Labour and Conservative green rooms though, meaning the leaders’ top cheerleaders kept popping by to talk up their boss.

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth made a very enthusiastic appearance, brandishing a wad of paper about the financial black hole in the Tory promises, and Wes Streeting came bouncing into the room a few hours before the debate began.

The debate was seen as Starmer’s to lose.

The Conservative team – including health secretary Victoria Atkins and net zero secretary Claire Coutinho – arrived with notably less fanfare, and quietly snuck off to chat to a handful of broadcasters at the back of the room.

Hacks sat around a giant TV screen for the debate
Hacks sat around a giant TV screen for the debate
Kate Nicholson

And when – after some hacks had been killing time for four hours – Sunak and Starmer appeared on screen at 9pm, a wave of giggles broke out across the room at the sight of the prime minister’s wooden stance and unblinking expression.

But the mood in the room shifted once the starting gun was fired on the debate as it quickly became clear that of the two, Sunak was the one who was wound up and ready to go.

He refused to let anyone else get a word in edgeways – including host Julie Etchingham – and ignored the 45 second time limit on answers, shouting and pointing at his opposition, who looked increasingly flustered.

A couple of journalists even muttered “shut up, Rishi,” with exasperation as they desperately tried to take notes.

Neither of the leaders seemed to land a clean blow against the other though.

There was a collective groan every time either of them referenced their parents’ careers in an effort to make themselves seem relatable.

(Hacks are very used to Starmer touting his father’s toolmaker profession and Sunak repeatedly talking about his parents being a GP and a pharmacist.)

Perhaps the closest the room got to being “shocked” was when Starmer described Sunak as the “most liberal PM we’ve ever had” over migration – a short whistle could be heard around the room.

Once the debate wrapped up, the atmosphere turned much more chaotic with journalists standing on chairs and pushing microphones at the party’s representatives to get their take on what just happened.

Naturally, both sides said their leader had won – but there was no doubt that levelling up secretary Michael Gove seemed much more jubilant than before the debate began, jumping from journalist to journalist to capitalise on Sunak’s performance.

After all, the prime minister had proven he still had some fight in him yet.

Shadow ministers Ashworth and Pat McFadden, meanwhile, failed to pack a punch with their reads on the debate.

They simply shrugged off early polls which suggested viewers thought Sunak was the narrow victor in this fight, noting: “There are a lot of polls.”

Weary journalists were eventually kicked out of the spin room at 11.30pm after quickly trying to file their final pieces.

Angry exchanges aside, it was not the most thrilling debate. But, no matter – still 29 days of the campaign trail left to go...


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