Leaders in their most important debate on the content in detail (no, not in the US)

Forty-eight hours before President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump clashed onstage in Atlanta on Thursday, the leaders of Britain’s two largest parties, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, went head-to-head in Nottingham , England.

To say that their debates were different does not even begin to capture the gulf as wide as the Atlantic Ocean that separates them.

In content, tone and atmosphere, the British debate featured two politicians in their prime, sparring over the issues – often heated, not without personal jabs, but focused on the policy nuances of tax, immigration and healthcare. Neither Mr Sunak, 44, nor Mr Starmer, 61, raised his golf handicap.

Britain and the United States are often seen as operating under the same political weather system – the conservative turn to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the pivot to the youth and centre-left with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and the anti-establishment, populist backlash that Brexit and Mr Trump has fueled. But this week’s back-to-back meetings showed just how sharply these democracies have diverged, at least in this election cycle.

“These are two countries in very different places, with very different visions of their place in the world,” said Kim Darroch, who served as Britain’s ambassador to Washington during the Trump administration.

“The tone between Sunak and Starmer was that of two deeply serious politicians,” Darroch continued. “Between Biden and Trump, it was prickly, it was mean, it was childish, but it wasn’t serious.”

To some extent, that reflects the different natures of the candidates: Mr. Sunak, a former hedge fund manager, and Mr. Starmer, a former prosecutor, are more technocratic, detail-oriented figures than either Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden. Neither is known as a charismatic politician.

They also have little of the personal animosity between the 78-year-old Mr. Trump and the 81-year-old Mr. Biden. Both entered parliament in 2015 and barely knew each other until Mr Sunak became prime minister in 2022.

But the different tone also reflects how British politics has evolved from the toxic divisions over Brexit. Eight years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, they have returned to more normal debates over taxes, spending, housing planning permission and how to cut waiting times in the overburdened National Health Service.

“Sunak tried to bring some American culture war issues into the debate early in the campaign, but there was no appetite,” said Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester.

There was also a change in British political personalities. “Who was absent from that stage? Boris Johnson,” Professor Ford said, referring to the flamboyant prime minister who led the Brexit campaign and drew comparisons to Trump.

Mr Johnson was ousted by his Conservative Party after scandals including social gatherings during pandemic lockdowns. His successor, Liz Truss, lasted only 44 days after her tax cut proposals caused a backlash on the financial markets.

“Our system seems to have healthier formal and informal mechanisms to get rid of leaders,” Professor Ford said. “With Biden and Trump, there are no obvious mechanisms to get rid of them,” apart from defeating them on Election Day.

When voters go to the polls in Britain on July 4, they are expected to vote for Mr. Sunak will oust after 14 years in government in favor of Mr. Starmer. The debate was seen as one of Mr. Sunak to avert a landslide defeat.

The Prime Minister expanded on arguments that the Labor Party would raise taxes and open Britain’s borders to immigrants. “Don’t surrender,” Mr Sunak repeated several times to the studio audience (another difference from the debate in the United States, where there was no studio audience).

Mr Starmer’s angry response that the prime minister lied about taxes was the closest he came to slamming Mr Biden and Mr Trump. Otherwise, he earnestly laid out the party’s plans to build 1.5 million new homes, calling the lack of affordable housing the “tragedy of the last decade”.

There were many critics of the debate. Some accused Mr Sunak of being excessively aggressive and bullying Mr Starmer. Others said Mr Starmer was insecure, particularly about how he would try to curb the flow of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel.

The back-and-forth over taxes struck some as annoying. Writer Jonathan Coe compared it unfavourably to the European Football Championship matches being shown simultaneously on a different channel.

“Can I stand another hour of watching these people pointlessly kick the ball back and forth to each other, or should I turn around and look at the football instead?” wrote mr. Coe on X.

Televised debates, Darroch noted, are a relatively recent American import into British politics; the first between prime ministerial candidates were held in 2010. Unlike in the United States, where they can change the course of a campaign — as many Democrats fear Biden’s faltering performance will — debates rarely shift public sentiment in Britain.

First, British politicians debate each other almost every week in the House of Commons. Mr. Sunak and Mr. Starmer have faced off dozens of times during Prime Minister’s Questions, a Wednesday ritual in which the leader of the opposition grills the prime minister while journalists keep score.

“If you’re both good at debating, it gets very annoying because nobody makes any big blunders,” Mr Darroch said. “The British public expects a game of cricket, not too many low blows. We live in a greyer political world, compared to the Technicolor of debates in the US.”

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