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LONDON: The two men vying to be Britain’s prime minister clashed late Wednesday night in a fiery, last face-to-face televised debate before the country’s general election next week.

With Keir Starmer’s Labor opposition enjoying a huge lead in the polls, the verbal brawl in Nottingham in central England was the last big chance for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to give his Conservatives a fighting chance on July 4.

The debate turned personal at times, with Sunak accusing Starmer of “taking people for fools” over Labour’s plans to restrict immigration, and Starmer accusing wealthy Sunak of being “out of touch with reality”.

Sunak has repeatedly urged voters not to “give up” on Labor on everything from borders to taxes, while Starmer has repeated his mantra that the election represents an opportunity to “turn the page” after 14 years of Tory rule.

Both interlocutors also reported on the betting scandal that embroiled several senior Tories and the Labor candidate and overshadowed talks on key policies in the final days of the campaign.

Starmer promised to “reset politics so that politics returns to public service”, accusing Sunak of lacking leadership in the face of all the confusion.

Sunak, who promised to restore “integrity, professionalism and accountability” when he was appointed Tory leader and prime minister in 2022, said he was “furious” when he learned of the allegations.

“I have made myself clear: anyone who has broken the rules should not only face the full consequences of the law, but I will ensure they are expelled from the Conservative Party,” he added.

But in a sign of the public’s low opinion of politicians, one listener asked, “Are you really the best we have?” – received thunderous applause.

Labor has been more than 20 points ahead in the polls for more than 18 months as Britons appear tired of Tory rule dominated by austerity agendas, Brexit and party infighting.

Sunak has failed to reduce the deficit since calling the election on May 22, six months earlier than legally required.

His rain-soaked announcement outside Downing Street was an ominous harbinger of what was to come.

Since then, the Tory leader has run a lackluster, error-filled campaign and caused confusion for skipping the major D-Day anniversary alongside other world leaders in northern France.

He has been criticized for taking late action over the betting row, which this week saw the Conservatives withdraw support for two candidates under investigation by the Gambling Commission for alleged betting on the election date.

One of them, Craig Williams, who was a close adviser to Sunak during the last parliament, allegedly bet £100 ($127) three days before Sunak called the vote.

The second, Laura Saunders, is the wife of the Tory campaign director, who took leave when the claims became public.

The party’s chief data officer also resigned amid allegations that he placed dozens of bets on the election date.

Separately, the Labor Party suspended a candidate after he bet he would lose the election, and five police officers are under investigation.

The regulator is believed to be investigating whether anyone placing bets had confidential information.

Such activities are permitted in the UK, but using insider knowledge for this purpose is illegal.

The tawdry affair capped off a disappointing campaign that failed to captivate the public, with polls suggesting a large portion of the electorate made up their mind months ago.

Labour’s lead increased enormously in October 2022 when Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, spooked the markets and showered the pound with billions of pounds of unfunded tax cuts.

Voters were already showing signs of Tory fatigue after the ‘Partygate’ scandal over illegal parties blocking Downing Street Covid accelerated former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fall from power.

During the campaign, Sunak made a number of headline-grabbing announcements, such as national service for teenagers, but these failed to influence the polls.

The decision by staunch Eurosceptic Nigel Farage to run as a candidate for the far-right Reform Party UK has also made his task more difficult.

Starmer, on the other hand, remained cautious as he tried to maintain Labor’s advantage and return it to power for the first time since 2010.

He chose not to announce a new policy, instead seeking to assure voters that Labor would manage the economy responsibly and repeating his mantra that Britain demands “change”.

Despite its lead in the polls, Labor still needs a record turnaround to win a majority of one, thanks to the Conservatives’ landslide victory under Johnson in the 2019 election.

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