TV debate over Tory leadership keeps contest acrimonious
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss traded blows over the economy in a crucial televised debate over Conservative leadership that quickly took the competition to new levels of acrimony.
Sunak, the former chancellor, claimed Truss would push “millions into misery” by cutting taxes now, a move he said would drive interest rates up sharply and drag the economy down.
A spokesperson for Truss said: “Rishi Sunak proved tonight that he is unfit for office. His aggressive and screaming behavior at a private school is desperate, unbecoming and a gift to the Labor Party. .
The BBC1 prime-time debate was seen by Sunak supporters as a pivotal moment as he tried to reclaim the initiative from Truss, the Foreign Secretary, seen as the favorite to become the next British Prime Minister.
Polls suggest Truss is the favorite among Tory activists to be the party’s next leader; more than 150,000 party members will begin receiving ballots next week and a new leader will be named on September 5.
In a combative performance, during which he repeatedly interrupted his rival, Sunak said Truss wanted to borrow an additional £40bn from the country’s credit card. “There’s nothing conservative about it,” he said.
Sunak claimed that Patrick Minford, the economist cited by Truss to defend his plans, had warned that interest rates might have to rise as high as 7%. Truss’ team said Minford was not advising her.
Truss held firm, insisting that the tax increases introduced by Sunak would drive Britain into recession and that he was pursuing ‘negative and declinist policies’ which risked ‘bringing the economy crashing down’ .
She claimed her tax cuts would spur growth. “Where have growth policies been for two and a half years? she asked at the event in Stoke-on-Trent, which voted Conservative in 2019 after years of Labor dominance.
Sunak and Truss were asked about the negative tone of the conservative contest. Culture Secretary and Truss supporter Nadine Dorries previously opposed Truss’ budget earrings with Sunak’s expensive suits.
“Rishi is a very well-dressed man, I’m not going to give him any fashion advice,” Truss said, but refused to dismiss Dorries’ remarks.
Truss said that “having been in a comprehensive school and seeing how many children were left behind” she was inspired to get into politics. She had previously pitted her public school against Sunak’s elite education.
Sunak, who attended the fee-paying school in Winchester, said he would “not apologize” for his parents working hard to get him there. His comments won a rare round of applause from the audience.
The former chancellor, accused by many Tory campaigners of helping to bring down Boris Johnson as prime minister, said he ‘acted on principle’ when he resigned from the cabinet earlier this month.
Truss, who has reaped a “loyalty dividend” among party members, said the mistakes Johnson made were “not enough” to warrant his removal. “I thought it would be a dereliction of duty to quit my job,” she said.
She said Johnson “would not be in government” if she became prime minister. Sunak also said it was time to look to the future. Johnson’s allies believe he could still make a comeback.
Truss said if she won the competition, she would offer Sunak a position in her government. He replied that he would accept the offer.
Some Tory MPs have expressed concern over the increasingly bitter tone of the leadership debate.
“We present ourselves to the public as a divided group that cannot agree on anything,” said a senior Tory MP, adding that the televised debates had only worsened the perception of the party.
“We let the broadcasters get in the middle of us and make us rip pieces off,” the MP said.
Some Tory MPs grew increasingly skeptical of Sunak’s chances of winning over the Tory base. “If you put it in the country, Rishi would win it – but if you put it in the members, it’s Truss,” a senior Tory official said.
“The Conservative members are getting pretty reactionary and that’s what Liz is selling now. She sells a version of Thatcher that works well in the hearts of conservatives.
A former cabinet minister said: ‘There’s a Boris hangover hanging over this contest – Johnson’s supporters feel he’s been betrayed and are part of this movement of anyone but Rishi that is part of the reason for some of the personal attacks,” they added.