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A history of the TV debate in the UK as Sunak and Starmer prepare to face off

The UK broke its long-time abstention from televised debates in 2010 (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)
The UK broke its long-time abstention from televised debates in 2010 (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

As Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer agree to go head to head in the first televised leaders’ debate of the 2024 General Election campaign, here is a history of the TV debate in British electoral history.

While the US had their first televised presidential debate in 1960, with Republican vice president Richard M Nixon facing off against Democratic senator John F Kennedy, the UK did not hold its first TV debate between hopeful prime ministers until 2010.

Labour Leader Harold Wilson challenged then prime minister Alec Douglas-Home to a debate in 1964, but this was declined, a favour Mr Wilson returned when he was prime minister by turning down the offer to debate the Opposition leader Ted Heath.

When the UK did break its long-time abstention from televised debates, the New York Times commented: “Long after the United States, and even after Iran, Afghanistan and Mongolia, politics in Britain is moving into the television age.”

General Election campaign 2024
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmerwill go head to head in the first televised leaders’ debate of the General Election campaign on Tuesday June 4 (PA)

– 2010

In 2010 there were three head-to-head televised debates between the then-party leaders Gordon Brown for Labour, David Cameron for the Tories and Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats.

The first debate was held on April 15 and was watched by 9.9 million viewers.

A triumphant performance from the Lib Dem leader began what came known as ‘Cleggmania’, as the party’s support shot up 14% the day after the debate, taking them to 35% in the polls.

After the debate, former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown said: “The truth is that Nick Clegg has been, like all Lib Dem leaders have been, bullied and shouted down. For the first time we now have the public able to see the real Nick Clegg and they love it”.

2010 General Election campaign Apr 22nd
The three leaders in 2010, projected onto the studios where Sky filmed the second televised leaders’ debate in Bristol (Johnny Green/PA)

The debate was described as well-mannered and placid, with handshakes all round at the end, but off-screen the SNP and Ukip (UK Independence Party) were among the smaller parties to express anger at their exclusion.

While Mr Cameron managed to top the polls following the final 2010 debate, he failed to secure a majority, resulting in the first hung parliament since 1974 and the subsequent formation of the coalition Government.

– 2015

Following concerns expressed around the exclusivity of the debates of 2010, in 2015 the debates took the form of four programmes featuring seven party leaders, including Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP and Nigel Farage for Ukip.

The seven-way leaders’ debate took place on April 2 and was watched by 7.4 million people.

No clear winner emerged as Labour leader Ed Miliband topped one poll, Ms Sturgeon another and the Labour leader tied with Mr Cameron and Mr Farage in first place in a third.

General Election 2015 campaign – April 16th
Then-Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, Plaid Cymru Party leader Leanne Wood and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett during the BBC Challengers’ Election Debate 2015 at Central Hall Westminster, London

In a glimpse of what was to come in the following year’s Brexit referendum the leaders clashed on immigration, with Mr Cameron saying: “We do need immigration that’s controlled and fair. In recent decades it’s been too high and I want to see it come down.”

Mr Farage responded: “As members of the EU, what can we do to control immigration? Let me tell you – nothing.”

A 2015 survey by Panelbase found 38% of voters said they were influenced by the debates, 23% by TV news coverage and 10% by party political broadcasts.

– 2017

The-prime minister Theresa May declined to participate in debates for the snap election in 2017, meaning there was no direct debate between herself and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Home secretary at the time Amber Rudd represented the Tories, making her the target of a series of attacks on her party leader’s absence in another seven leader debate.

Ms Rudd made reference to the now infamous “magic money tree” but was laughed at by the audience as she called for people to “judge us on our record” on the public finances.

General Election 2017
A 2017 BBC Election Debate hosted by BBC news presenter Mishal Husain, broadcast from Cambridge (Jeff Overs/BBC/PA)

Mr Corbyn fought off attacks on his immigration policy and anti-terror voting history, while the then-Lib Dem leader Tim Farron received a cheer from the audience as he told viewers to switch over to The Great British Bake Off.

– 2019

Another election in 2019 saw the first TV debate featuring only the two main party leaders, then Boris Johnson for the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn for Labour.

Their head to head was dominated by Brexit, but in the first winter TV debate the leaders were asked what gifts they would leave each other under the Christmas tree.

Mr Corbyn said he would give Mr Johnson a copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens to “understand how nasty Scrooge was”, while the Prime Minister said he would give the Labour leader a copy of his Brexit deal. When urged him to give a non-political present, he said he would give some damson jam.

A tight YouGov survey result suggested 51% of Britons believed Mr Johnson won the debate compared with 49% for Mr Corbyn, not reflective of the landslide Tory victory that was to come.

General Election 2019
Then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and prime minister Boris Johnson going head to head in the BBC Election Debate in Maidstone, while on the election campaign trail (BBC/PA)

Nicola Sturgeon branded Mr Johnson a “scaredy cat” over his refusal to debate with her, saying she would face him “any time, any place”, as the SNP and Lib Dems launched a joint legal battle on their exclusion from the debate.

Elsewhere in the campaign, Channel 4 were cleared of bias by Ofcom after they refused to allow former environment secretary Michael Gove to stand in for Mr Johnson during a leaders’ debate on the climate crisis and replaced the prime minister with a melting block of ice.

– 2024

ITV have confirmed Mr Sunak and Sir Keir will take part in an  hour-long debate moderated by Julie Etchingham in front of a studio audience at 9pm on Tuesday June 4.