The battle to become the UK’s next prime minister escalated into fierce clashes on Monday night as Rishi Sunak launched repeated attacks on favorite Liz Truss’ economic policies in their first one-on-one televised debate.
The two Tory leadership candidates traded blows on tax cuts, China and inflation, with former chancellor Sunak accusing the foreign secretary of seeking ‘a short-term sugar rush’ by cutting national insurance.
Truss accused his former cabinet colleague of raising taxes to their highest level in 70 years.
The exchanges at the BBC debate followed a weekend of deeply personal attacks – with Sunak criticized for her wealth and her wardrobe, as Truss faced claims she was economically illiterate while remembering that she was once a remnant.
Sunak, widely seen as needing to make up ground crucial to winning over the Conservatives, who will vote from August 5, has repeatedly described his opponent’s plans on the economy as “unconservative”, interrupting him at one point to say, “You’ve promised almost £40bn in unfunded tax cuts, another £40bn in borrowing.
“It’s the country’s credit card. It’s our children and grandchildren… everyone here… who’s going to have to pay the bill for this.
Truss hit back at Sunak’s calls for a tougher stance on China, noting that last month the Treasury called for closer bilateral and economic ties.
Sunak accused his opponent of making statements about a “golden era” between China and the UK. “I think it was almost ten years ago,” retorted the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Amid reports that Boris Johnson has yet to rule out a political return, despite promising to step down next month, both candidates have also ruled out a role for the current prime minister in any government they may lead.
“I’m sure he will have a role. I’m sure he will speak out, but he won’t be part of the government,” the foreign minister said, while emphasizing that she had been one of Johnson’s early supporters.
She pitted her continued loyalty to him against that of others, adding that “it would have been a dereliction of duty” not to remain in his post.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Johnson told Lord Cruddas at Checkers over lunch on Friday that he “wants to fight in the next general election as leader of the Conservative Party”, the peer said.
Cruddas is leading a campaign to give Conservative party members a vote on whether to accept Johnson’s resignation as Conservative leader. But Downing Street responded by insisting Johnson would step down when a new leader was chosen.
Of Johnson, Truss told the debate: “Having spent time with him this week on Foreign Affairs, I have a very strong suspicion that he would not want to play any future role in government. He needs a well deserved break.
Sunak, whose resignation from the cabinet the same day as Sajid Javid prompted Johnson’s ousting, praised Johnson as “remarkable” but said he had reached a point where “enough was enough”.
“I thought everything on the driving side was wrong…and we clearly had different views on the economy side,” he said.
But with mail-in ballots due to arrive at Tory members’ doorsteps by August 5, Sunak has faced pressure to use the BBC debate – and another hosted by TalkTV and the Sun on Tuesday – to make a quick breakthrough.
Despite comfortably winning the leadership race among Tory MPs, Truss is the favorite to win after a series of opinion polls and surveys put her firmly ahead of party members.
Perhaps because of this pressure on Sunak, the debate was particularly moody, with the former Chancellor often interrupting Truss. At one point, she said, “According to my plans, we would start paying off the debt in three years, so I’m not putting it on the never ever.”
The former Chancellor interrupted, saying: ‘It’s just not fair’, adding: ‘You have promised almost £40billion in unfunded tax cuts… it’s the country’s credit card .”
Truss said, “Rishi, that’s not true. According to my plans, we would start repaying the debts in three years. Covid was a once in 100 year event. No other country imposes taxes at this time. The OECD called Rishi’s policies restrictive.
In the aftermath of the debate, Truss supporters argued that Sunak’s interruptions were the result of his background. “He came across as a public school lawyer,” one said.
A Sunak supporter claimed that Truss did not understand economics. “She was once again overwhelmed,” the MP said.
Party greats spoke out in the hours leading up to the debate, pleading for both parties to resist “knowing the mark”.
But the tensions that had built up continued to play out, with Truss refusing to distance himself from comments by one supporter, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who outraged some fellow Tory MPs by comparing Sunak’s Savile Row suit and Prada shoes at £4.50 from Truss. earrings from Claire’s Accessories.
“I’m not going to give fashion advice to Rishi. I mean, I said he was a very well-dressed man. I’m not going to give her any fashion advice,” Truss said when asked about Dorries’ comments.
Lord Maude, the party’s former chairman and Cabinet Office minister, told the BBC’s PM program ahead of the debate: “Obviously we’re going to win the leadership, but if the behavior of the teams and their language has been out of control, and it hurt the position of the party or the way people see the party, so it could end up being a Pyrrhic victory.
He said the increasingly agitated tone of campaign team interventions over the weekend had begun to appear as “a race to see who can sound more right-wing, as if this were the only game in town”.
Sunak’s allies said it was “no secret” he was set to make a significant impression in the debate, with polls suggesting he trails his rival.
But a campaign source said polls from YouGov and ConservativeHome showed a wider divide between the candidates than they had detected and said many members were undecided.
Truss has strictly limited her television appearances and has so far refused to be interviewed by veteran political journalist Andrew Neil, who will face Sunak on Friday. Channel 4 said it still hoped to convince Truss to take part.
Sunak’s allies suggested he would take numerous broadcast opportunities in order to highlight one of his own strengths over Truss’ perceived weakness. In previous multi-candidate debates, Truss has polled the general public poorly, while Sunak has come in first in one debate and second in another.
Earlier on Monday, Sunak teased his rival with a tweet – “Just me then?” – and a wink when Channel 4 announced Neil’s interview. Truss’ refusal echoes that of Boris Johnson, who refused to be interviewed by Neil during the 2019 election campaign.
Sunak and Truss will take part in another one-on-one debate on TalkTV on Tuesday night, and face off again at the first members’ meeting in Leeds on Thursday night.
Truss is likely to come under scrutiny when she returns to her hometown on Thursday after several speeches criticizing her former comprehensive school in north Leeds, which she says has spent ‘too little time in s ‘ensuring that everyone could read and write…there was a preference for symbolic gestures’.
Remarks criticized by the former Conservative MP for the region and by municipal councillors.