Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, will debate directly with each other and take questions from voters on Tuesday.. Image Credit: AFP

LONDON: Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer go head-to-head on Tuesday in the first televised debate of the UK general election campaign.

The hour-long spar between Sunak and the man widely tipped to replace him in Downing Street after the July 4 poll starts in front of a studio audience at 9pm (2000 GMT).

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It will air on ITV - one of the country’s most-watched TV channels - and will see the leaders of the country’s two main parties debate directly with each other and take questions from voters.

For Sunak, it represents a prime opportunity to try to narrow Labour’s huge lead in the polls, which has held firm since he surprisingly called the election almost two weeks ago.

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Labour has enjoyed double-digit leads in surveys of voters for about 18 months as Britons appear to have grown weary with the Conservatives after 14 years of rule.

Sunak, 44, has made a series of headline-grabbing promises in the campaign’s early days as he seeks to shore up his right-wing base and claw back support from Labour.

If elected, he has said he would bring back a form of national service for 18 year olds, introduce greater protection for pensioners’ incomes and amend Britain’s equality law so that biological sex alone would determine who could use single-sex spaces.

Starmer, 61, has been playing it much safer, seeking to reassure voters that Labour will responsibly marshal the economy and Britain’s defence as the centre-left party seeks to protect its lead.

String of TV debates

Tuesday’s debate will be moderated by news anchor Julie Etchingham, who hosted debates in the previous three elections, in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

It is the first of several televised discussions involving political leaders and taking different formats in the run-up to the vote.

Public service broadcaster the BBC will host another Sunak-Starmer stand-off in Nottingham, central England, on June 26.

The BBC is also hosting a debate this Friday between leading figures from the Conservatives and Labour, as well as from smaller parties the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru, Green Party and Reform UK.

On June 20, the BBC will host a two-hour-long special with the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and SNP, who will answer questions from a studio audience for 30 minutes each.

ITV will also host a multi-party debate on June 13.

Polling has suggested little appetite for the events among the electorate, reflecting wider apathy towards the two main candidates, who face each other every week in parliament at prime minister’s questions.

YouGov research released last week found only one in three are interested in watching a head-to-head debate, and just four percent wanted to see more than five such events.

Sunak announced the election in a rain-sodden speech outside 10 Downing Street on May 22, calling it six months earlier than he had to.