UK's Sunak and Starmer struggle to be heard as a noisy protest mars their final election debate

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer struggled to get their messages across in the first half of their fiery final televised debate of the U.K. election campaign on Wednesday as protesters drowned out their answers.

The two politicians vying to become Britain's leader after the July 4 election faced off live on the BBC. As the event got underway, indistinguishable but loud shouting could be heard from outside the venue at Nottingham Trent University in central England, where pro-Palestinian demonstrators had gathered outside.

Host Mishal Husain acknowledged the distraction, which continued as the two politicians traded barbs about ethics, tax and migration. Protest is a part of Britain's democracy, she noted.

Neither Starmer or Sunak made any reference to the protest. The ruckus, though it tapered off in the second half of the debate, made for a messy end to a debate series that has seen Starmer, Sunak and other party leaders appeal directly to voters.

Sunak, who has been prime minister since Oct. 2022 but whose Conservative Party is trailing Labour in the polls, was on the offensive during the debate as he sought to turn the political dial.

He accused Starmer of planning big tax rises and of being lax on immigration, claiming “people smugglers are going to need a bigger boat” under a Labour government.

He also asked the Labour leader whether he, if elected, would make a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan about sending back asylum seekers rejected from the United Kingdom. Sunak's government has made such an agreement with Albania and has legislated to send some asylum-seekers who reach Britain by boat across the English Channel on a one-way trip to Rwanda, a policy that Starmer said he'll get rid of if he comes to power.

“It’s completely nonsensical,” Sunak said. “You are taking people for fools.”

Opinion polls have for months been showing that Labour is set to return to power after 14 years and that Sunak's Conservatives are heading for a historic defeat.

Starmer insisted during the debate that nothing should be taken for granted and that people needed to go out and vote at the election on July 4 if they wanted “change.”

However, both candidates dodged giving a direct response to an audience member who asked whether they were “the best we’ve got to be the next prime minister of our great country."

Sunak said he understood the frustration that was implicit in the question, given the tough times the country has experienced in the last few years, during the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath.

Starmer said he was not surprised by the question, “that people feel this way because the country is in such a state.”

Next week British voters will elect lawmakers to fill all 650 seats in the House of Commons, and the leader of the party that can command a majority — either alone or in coalition — will become prime minister. Labour currently has a double-digit lead in opinion polls over the Conservatives, who have been in power for 14 years under five different prime ministers.


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