Rishi Sunak failed to claw back ground tonight despite launching a series of attacks on Liz Truss in a brutal TV debate, according to a poll.
A snap survey by Opinium found 39 per cent of viewers thought the ex-Chancellor came out on top in the BBC showdown, while 38 per cent plumped for the Foreign Secretary.
However, critically among Tory voters Ms Truss was seen as having won by a margin of 47 per cent to 38 per cent.
The result will be disappointing for Mr Sunak, who has tended to lead in polls of the general public – but trails among the Tory members who will decide the next leader.
With the battle to replace Boris Johnson turning increasingly nasty, Mr Sunak was under pressure to make an impact in the debate and came out swinging.
He told Ms Truss it was ‘not responsible’, ‘immoral’ and ‘not Conservative’ to offer to cut taxes – something he has suggested cannot happen until Autumn next year to avoid fuelling inflation. ‘You’ve promised almost £40billion of unfunded tax cuts… everyone here will have to pick up the tab for that,’ he said.
But the Foreign Secretary hit back that she would reverse the increase in national insurance, and it made no sense to raise taxes during a global economic crisis. She said other states like the US were not lifting the tax burden, adding ‘we are an outlier’.
When Mr Sunak warned that interest rates could soar as a result of her policies, Ms Truss said: ‘This is scaremongering.’
But Mr Sunak jibed at her support for staying in the EU in 2016, saying: ‘There was only one of us on the side of Remain Project Fear and it was not me.’
Ms Truss lashed out at his ‘bean-counting’ attitude, with Mr Sunak retorting: ‘You talk about bean counting as if it’s not a Conservative thing to do to care about how we’re going to pay for things.’
The candidates traded blows about China, with Ms Truss saying that as recently as a month ago he had been urging closer ties – but was now calling for the opposite. ‘I am glad you’ve come round to my way of thinking,’ she said.
Mr Sunak also batted away criticism that his super-rich status means he cannot connect with ordinary people, saying he ‘wasn’t born this way’ and had become wealthy due to the hard work and aspiration of his parents.
Ms Truss effectively disowned a comparison made by one of her supporters, Nadine Dorries between the Foreign Secretary’s £4.50 earrings and Mr Sunak’s £3,500 suit. Mr Truss said she had deleted Twitter since the contest kicked off, adding: ‘I don’t know how she knows where I got my earrings to be perfectly frank about it.’
In other key exchanges during the hour-long blue-on-blue session:
- Ms Truss dismissed the prospect of Mr Johnson having a job in her government, saying she does not believe he wants one and needs a ‘wel-earned break’ after a ‘difficult’ few years. ‘I’m sure he will have a role, I’m sure he will be vocal, but he will not be part of the government,’ she said.
- The Foreign Secretary admitted she was not the ‘slickest’ performer but had delivered in her government positions;
- Mr Sunak gave Mr Johnson 10 out of 10 for delivering Brexit, while Ms Truss said she would rate his time in Downing Street as seven out of 10;
- Asked what quality the other candidate should work on, Ms Truss praised Mr Sunak and said she would ‘love’ him to be part of her team – but added that she would like him to ‘take more risks and be bolder’;
- Mr Sunak ended the debate by refusing to criticise his opponent further, saying he would serve in her government and stressing they all shared the same Tory values.
A snap poll by Opinium found Mr Sunak edged the contest among viewers as a whole, by 39 per cent to 38 per cent
However, Mr Sunak was a clear loser among Tory voters – behind Ms Truss by 47 per cent to 38 per cent
Rishi Sunak launched a series of furious attacks on Liz Truss in a TV debate tonight as he desperately struggles to win over Tory members
Sophie Raworth hosted tonight’s debate in Stoke, with the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason and economics editor Faisal Islam offering analysis and some follow-up questions
The Tory candidates engaged in bruising exchanges on a range of topics – but ended with a calmer tone
It came as a new poll showed that while Ms Truss is more popular with Tory voters, Ms Sunak is ahead when it comes to all voters.
The pair have been taking part in numerous hustings, but the last time they crossed swords directly on TV was a brutal ITV debate when Mr Sunak demanded to know which Ms Truss regretted more out of voting Remain and previously being a Lib Dem.
The encounter was so bad-tempered that both pulled out of a subsequent debate on Sky News to avoid more blue-on-blue.
Mr Sunak is under pressure to find a way of gaining momentum tonight, after another poll suggested Ms Truss is on course to win the Tory leadership – even though she is marginally less popular with the wider voting public.
Ms Truss has also refused to take part in a one-to-one TV interview with veteran interviewer Andrew Neil. He will grill Mr Sunak on Channel 4 this Friday night, but she has declined.
Both candidates released new campaign videos ahead of the showdown, with Ms Truss’s showing her meeting activists and insisting she is the only candidate with the ‘boldness’ to address the country’s woes.
However, Mr Sunak’s latest films play up his human side, chatting with a young girl on a visit to a school and volunteers who have joined his team.
Sophie Raworth hosted tonight’s debate in Stoke, with the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason and economics editor Faisal Islam offering analysis and some follow-up questions.
The studio audience, put together by Savanta ComRes, was made up entirely of people who voted Conservative at the last general election.
With postal ballots set to arrive on Tory members’ doorsteps by August 5, Mr Sunak faces pressure to use the BBC debate – and another hosted by TalkTV and the Sun on Tuesday – to make a breakthrough.
Although he comfortably won the leadership race among Tory MPs, bookmakers have made Ms Truss favourite after a series of opinion polls and surveys put her firmly ahead with Conservative members.
Here are the crunch sections from the debate tonight:
TAX AND THE COST-OF-LIVING CRISIS
Mr Sunak and Ms Truss were asked if people can expect more help with their bills if they become prime minister.
Mr Sunak said: ‘You may remember one of the last things I did as chancellor was announce a significant amount of support to help people get through autumn and the winter with those bills.
‘And of course, as prime minister, I’d like to make sure that we always have the policies in place to support people like you, who are working incredibly hard to provide for you and your families.’
When pressed on whether he will announce more help, Mr Sunak said: ‘When we get in we will have to see what happens to energy bills, as the situation changes on the ground, I am always going to support people through it.’
But in contrast Ms Truss said: ‘I would act immediately. I understand that people here, people around the country, are struggling with some of the worst cost of living problems that we have had for generations.
‘It’s hard to pay for fuel. It’s hard to pay for food. I would reverse the increase in national insurance. We promised not to raise it in our manifesto in 2019.
‘The people here, who voted Conservative for the first time, expect us to fulfil our promises.
‘So, I would reverse that increase in national insurance. I’d also have a temporary moratorium on the green energy levy, which would help cut money from fuel bills. That’s very important, that would come in straight away.’
Pressed on her suggestion that UK debt could be reprofiled by BBC economics editor Faisal Islam, Ms Truss said: I am illustrating the fact that when you have a major world event, a major economic shock, trying to pay back the debt as quickly as possible is not the right thing to do economically.
‘We didn’t do that after the Second World War. We shouldn’t do that now. And crashing the economy in order to pay a debt back quicker is a massive mistake.’
However, Mr Sunak said: ‘The mistake that we will make is that at a time when inflation is already high, everyone’s already feeling it in their belt, interest rates are already on the rise, so, into that situation does anyone think that the sensible thing to do is go on a massive borrowing spree worth tens of billions of pounds and fuel inflation?’
The former chancellor said that ‘if we do, inflation stays here for longer and interest rates are going to go up’.
He added: ‘It is not moral to ask our children to pick up the tab for the bills that we are not prepared to pay.’
Ms Truss was confronted over the remarks made by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries comparing the costs of the clothing worn by the candidates.
Saying she did not know how Ms Dorries knew her earrings costs £4.50, the Foreign Secretary said: ‘I am not going to give Rishi fashion advice. I mean, I have said he is a very well-dressed man. I’m not going to give him fashion advice.
‘And I don’t think this is really the key issue in the campaign, frankly, you know, we have had a really serious discussion about the importance of growing the economy, and what will help achieve that. That’s what people in Stoke-on-Trent want to hear about. They don’t want to hear about Rishi and my fashion choices.’
Ms Truss previously seemed to suggest she would make a better PM because she went to comprehensive school while her opponent went to £40,000-a-year public school Winchester.
But Mr Sunak received a round of applause when he said Conservative were not against people improving their situation.
‘My parents were part of an immigrant family that came here,’ he said.
‘They didn’t start with very much, but they worked day and night, saved and sacrificed to provide a better future for their three children.
‘And I am nothing but enormously grateful for everything that they did for me. And I’m certainly not going to apologise for the fact that they worked hard, and they aspired to do that for their kids. And in fact, as I said before, those values, those Conservative values about hard work and aspiration and building a better future for your children. That’s why I want to be prime minister.’
The Foreign Secretary said: ‘Winchester is a very, very good school, and I would love people for right across the country to have the opportunity to go to a school like that.
‘The issue was when we had the debate last week is, I was being questioned about why I thought what I did in the past, so I was explaining my upbringing.’
CHINA AND UKRAINE
The PM hopefuls traded blows over Mr Sunak’s major foreign policy announcement today, taking a tougher line on China the ‘biggest-long term threat to Britain’.
Ms Truss said: ‘As recently as a month ago you were pushing for closer trade relationships with China.
‘This is not something you’ve advocated in Government.
‘I’m delighted that you’ve come round to my way of thinking, but it’s been driven by the Foreign Office, the toughest stance we’ve taken on China; whether it’s taking the alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road with our G7 colleagues, whether it’s being clear that Taiwan should be able to defend itself in the face of Chinese aggression.
‘We have led on that, and frankly, what we’ve heard from the Treasury is a desire for closer economic relations with China.
‘My view is we should not repeat the mistake we made with Russia, of becoming strategically dependent on Russia and we’re now facing the cost of that on energy.’
Both candidates said they would continue to support Ukraine, but would not commit British troops.
With the battle to replace Boris Johnson turning increasingly nasty, Rishi Sunak swiped at Liz Truss during a showdown on the BBC
Rayworth had to referee between Ms Truss and Mr Sunak as they tore chunks out of each other tonight
How do the would-be PMs’ policies stack up so far?
TAX AND SPEND
The main focus of the Tory members – some might say their only interest – is paying less tax. And it is tax policy that has contributed to most of Liz Truss’s lead over Rishi Sunak.
The Foreign Secretary has pledged to cut both personal and business taxes. She has vowed to scrapped a plan to increase corporation tax to 25 per cent, and reverse Boris Johnson’s 1.25 per cent increase to National Insurance designed to pay for the NHS and social care.
She believes her cuts will boost the economy. Experts have said fiscal plans would cost the Treasury £30billion, but she has insisted they will not impact public spending, because she will increase borrowing.
Mr Sunak on the other hand, has said that his main priority is reining in inflation, currently running at 9.4 per cent, the highest since the early 1980s. He will only look at cutting taxes once that handbrake has been removed.
The former chancellor has pitched himself as the fiscally conservative candidate and had criticised his rivals’ plans to raise borrowing to pay for tax cuts as ‘comforting fairytales’.
Inflation could soar to 15 per cent this winter, economists warned this morning.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that Tory members would face a ‘genuine choice’ between Ms Truss’s plans and those of Mr Sunak, whose fiscal position is broadly that of the current Government.
The debt interest costs in June dwarfed all previous monthly figures since records began in 1997
It was more than double the same month last year, and a peak since records began in 1997
Nadine Dorries takes to Twitter to blast Rishi Sunak’s posh £3,500 suit
The Tory leadership race turned increasingly bitter today, despite ministers warning both camps that the ongoing mudslinging is ’embarrassing’ the party.
Nadine Dorries lashed out at Rishi Sunak today after it was revealed he went campaigning in a £3,500 suit and £490 Prada shoes.
The Culture Secretary, who backs Liz Truss, contrasted it with his opponent’s more homespun appearance, saying the Foreign Secretary Ms Truss is more likely to be seen in a pair of £4.50 earrings from high street chain Claire’s.
But her sniping on Twitter provoked a backlash from Team Rishi, with Guildford MP Angela Richardson, who backs Sunak, replied: ‘FFS (for f***’s sake) Nadine! Muted.’
In turn, Truss backer Marcus Fysh said he would be muting supporters of her rival.
The very public blue-on-blue attacks came as Truss and Sunak are due to go head-to-head in a BBC debate tonight.
The last planned tv debate, on Sky News, was axed last week amid fears that public fighting was damaging the party.
And there were similar pleas for calm today, with Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer tweeting: ‘Probably worth remembering that on current trajectory we are out of power in two years time. The puerile nature of this leadership contest is embarrassing. Time to raise the standards.’
His intervention came after former party chairwoman Amanda Milling branded the leadership race ‘more toxic than I’ve ever seen’.
She added that if the two camps didn’t calm down ‘the lasting damage to our Party could see us out of power for a decade’.
In an analysis, the IFS’s Robert Joyce noted that cancelling a planned rise in corporation tax from 19 to 25 per cent would cost £17billion, though some might be clawed back in higher tax income generally if it stimulates economic growth. The National Insurance pledge will reduce tax takings by an additional £13billion and mainly help the better-off.
However he also points out that Mr Sunak’s plans leave the UK with ‘tax heading towards its highest sustained level in 70 years as a share of national income’.
Ms Truss’s plans have been backed by Prof Patrick Minford, one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite economists.
But he caused consternation by saying that they could lead to interest rates hitting a ‘normal level’ of up to seven per cent. The current rate is 1.5 per cent and the increase would have a massive impact on homeowners’ mortgage repayments.
Additionally, public borrowing is already at a record level due to emergency bail-outs during the pandemic. Last month figures interest payments on the £2.4trillion debt mountain set a new record of £19.4billion.
Today Education Secretary James Cleverly defended Ms Truss’s taxation plans and said he would not want to see interest rates at 7 per cent.
He said no prime minister can guarantee what interest rates will be in the future, but added: ‘Tax decreases will stimulate economic growth. That has got to be the foundation stone.’
But former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said Rishi Sunak is ‘prepared to be honest with the country’ about the state of the nation’s finances.
Mr Hunt, who failed in his own leadership bid, is backing the former chancellor in the Tory leadership contest.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘I’m supporting Rishi Sunak because I think he’s prepared to be honest with the country about the challenges that we face, the fact we can’t afford unfunded tax cuts.
‘I think we need that honesty when it comes to the future of the NHS as well.’
Truss will today announce what she calls a ‘full-fat’ version of the ex-chancellor’s freeports.
She claims existing low-tax areas are dogged by ‘excessive’ red tape.
The Tory leadership favourite wants to create model towns in the image of Victorian commercial areas such as Bournville.
Developers will be freed from planning rules so they can build quicker.
Miss Truss is also pledging to cut more red tape from the eight freeports created under Mr Sunak.
Her team hope the plans will unleash billions of pounds of investment.
The two camps came to blows today over who was the toughest on immigration. Both have committed to the Rwanda scheme that is meant to see Channel migrants deported to Africa – though non have yet been sent.
Calling the current system ‘broken’, Mr Sunak offered a 10-point plan on Sunday that included a commitment to a narrower definition of who qualifies for asylum compared to that from the ECHR, with enhanced powers to detain, tag and monitor illegal migrants.
He also promised to give Parliament control over who comes to the UK by creating an annual cap on the number of refugees accepted each year, albeit one that can be changed in the case of sudden emergencies.
But those proposals were picked apart by Truss allies, who raised questions about Mr Sunak’s proposals, arguing that it was unclear how the refugee quota would work and suggesting that some of his plans amounted to a ‘rebrand’.
Allies of Ms Truss also queried a suggestion from Mr Sunak that illegal migrants could be housed on cruise ships, something the Truss camp suggested would amount to arbitrary detention and a breach of both domestic and international law.
It prompted claims he was offering unworkable ‘red meat’ to Tory rightwingers because he is losing, but his own camp told the Times: ‘Good to see Remainer Truss on the side of human rights lawyers.’
Mr Sunak sought to defend his proposals on Sunday afternoon, telling the BBC that tackling illegal migration was a ‘priority’ for him and that ‘no options should be off the table’.
But he was unable to give a clear assurance that his policy proposals would be legal.
The two camps came to blows today over who was the toughest on immigration. Both have committed to the Rwanda scheme that is meant to see Channel migrants deported to Africa – though non have yet been sent.
‘What we do need to do is be very honest about the challenges that the ECHR, these European laws, have on our ability to grapple with this problem.
The Truss campaign had said that as prime minister she would increase the UK’s frontline Border Force by 20 per cent and double the Border Force Maritime staffing levels, with Ms Truss claiming that her plan to tackle illegal migration would be given a strong legal foundation by the new UK Bill of Rights.
She vowed to take on the ECHR as immigration was thrust into the spotlight of the Tory leadership run-off.
Miss Truss also pledged to revisit the controversial idea of asking Border Force to intercept Channel migrants and tow them back to France.
The idea was abandoned by Boris Johnson this year after warnings it posed too great a risk to life. But campaign sources said Miss Truss would explore ‘all possible tactics’ for turning around boats to discourage others from the perilous crossing.
The Foreign Secretary uses an interview with The Mail on Sunday vow to strike Rwanda-style deals with more countries.
She said: ‘The Rwanda policy is the right policy. I’m determined to see it through to full implementation, as well as exploring other countries that we can work on similar partnerships with. It’s the right thing to do.
The plans from both candidates generated anger in some quarters, with Oxfam labelling as ‘cruel’ any plan to link UK aid payments to countries’ co-operation with immigration removals and Amnesty International saying that making policy only to please Tory members has caused ‘chaos and backlogs’.
Education Secretary James Cleverly, who is backing Ms Truss, today said a suggestion from Rishi Sunak’s campaign that asylum seekers could be housed on cruise ships could be ‘reputationally quite a negative thing’ for holiday destinations if the ships are moored nearby.
He told Times Radio: ‘It’s understandable that (Mr Sunak) needs to put across a strong position on migration issues. I get that.’
He added: ‘I haven’t seen the practicalities of that. I do think that it would be interesting to see where those ships would be moored because typically the places where you can moor a cruise ship are holiday destinations.
‘And I’m not completely sure that that would suit the tourist industry in our coastal towns which need I think a boost rather than what might be reputationally quite a negative thing, but I will look at that.’
CHINA AND FOREIGN POLICY
The pair also clashed over China. When Mr Sunak last night declared to be ‘the biggest long-term threat to Britain, ‘allies of accused Mr Sunak of being ‘soft on China’ and pursuing closer trade links.
Last night former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, one of five British MPs sanctioned by China for speaking out on human rights abuses, said it was ‘surprising’ that Mr Sunak was claiming to be tough on Beijing.
Ahead of the leadership contenders’ first head-to-head TV debate tonight, Sir Iain – who is backing Miss Truss – said: ‘Over the last two years, the Treasury has pushed hard for an economic deal with China.
The former Chancellor has been criticised for pushing for closer trade with China, despite the nation cracking down on peaceful protests in Hong Kong (pictured)
Allies of Ms Truss, the foreign secretary, labeled Mr Sunak a ‘totally boring failed economist’ after he vowed to double down on the £120m scheme to send migrants to Rwanda.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who has been sanctioned by China, says Rishi Sunak has been quiet on China in the past two years
‘This is despite China sanctioning myself and four UK parliamentarians, despite China brutally cracking down on peaceful democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, illegally occupying the South China Sea, committing genocide on the Uyghurs and increasing its influence in our universities.
‘After such a litany, I have one simple question to Mr Sunak: where have you been over the last two years?’
Earlier this month, China’s state-controlled Global Times suggested Mr Sunak was Beijing’s preferred leadership candidate. While ‘most of the candidates hold a tough stance on China, only one of them [Sunak] has a clear and pragmatic view on developing UK-China ties’, the communist mouthpiece said.
A source in Team Truss said Mr Sunak was ‘playing catch-up’ on the China issue. Another said it was ‘remarkable’ that the former banker believed he had grounds to go on the attack over it. ‘Liz has almost single-handedly dragged the Government into a tougher position on China,’ the source said.
Mr Sunak accused his rival of allowing Beijing to extend its propaganda machine into Britain’s universities through its Confucius Institutes, which he pledged to shut down.
Critics say the Chinese government-funded cultural centres are strangling free speech on campuses and spying on overseas students. Nine such institutes opened during Miss Truss’s two-year stint as an education minister, sources in the Sunak camp said.
Neither camp last night wanted to comment on mounting evidence that Covid might have leaked from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But a source close to the Foreign Secretary said: ‘She doesn’t think the Chinese have been entirely forthcoming about how the outbreak started.’
Liz Truss has pledged to raise Britain’s spending on defence to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2026, and 3 per cent by 2030.
This would cost more than £22 billion on top of the current £48.2bn defence budget. She will also ‘review’ plans to cut the Army by nearly 10,000 personnel.