April 20, 2024

Tory leadership rivals stepped up their attacks on each other’s records and policies in their latest TV debate.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak tax rises he introduced would “choke off” growth.

Mr Sunak accused Ms Truss of peddling “something-for-nothing economics”. Other flashpoints were trans rights, Brexit and trust in politics.

All five ruled out an early general election if they became prime minister in seven weeks’ time.

At one point, the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would give departing Prime Minister Boris Johnson a job in their cabinet. None of them did.

MPs will vote for a third time on Monday as they whittle down the field eventually to two, who will then face postal ballot of Tory members to decide who will be the next prime minister.

In the hour-long ITV debate, some of the fiercest clashes were between Mr Sunak and Ms Truss, whose divisions over how to bring rising living costs under control while growing the economy were laid bare.

The record of Mr Sunak – who won the first two rounds of MPs’ voting – as chancellor has come under sustained attack during the leadership campaign.

Mr Sunak has been forced to defend tax rises introduced during his time as chancellor, including April’s hike in National Insurance to pay for social care and the NHS.

In the debate, Ms Truss said Mr Sunak had “raised taxes to the highest level in 70 years”, arguing that this was “not going to drive economic growth”.

“The fact is that raising taxes at this moment will choke off economic growth, it will prevent us getting the revenue we need to pay off the debt,” Ms Truss.

Mr Sunak responded that the pandemic damaged the economy and the money has to be paid back.

“There’s a cost to these things and the cost of higher inflation, higher mortgage rates, eroded savings,” Mr Sunak said. “And you know what? This something-for-nothing economics isn’t Conservative. It’s socialism.”

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss
Mr Sunak and Ms Truss had some testy exchanges over tax policy and Brexit

Trade minister Penny Mordaunt – the bookmakers’ favourite to win the race – said the limited tax cuts she advocated were not inflationary and people need help now with the cost of living.

“I don’t understand why Rishi doesn’t understand that,” she said.

But Mr Sunak hit back, accusing Ms Mordaunt of a “dangerous” plan to scrap his economic rule of only borrowing to invest.

The former chancellor said even Jeremy Corbyn – the left-wing former Labour leader – did not advocate such a loosening of the public finances.

There were also sharp exchanges between Ms Mordaunt and former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch over a row about the self-identification for transgender people.

Ahead of the debate, Ms Mordaunt told the BBC there were a “number of smears going on in the papers” and dismissed claims she had backed gender self-identification when she was an equalities minister in 2019.

“I think this whole thing is unedifying,” Ms Mordaunt said. “I know why this is being done. What I would say to you is, all attempts to paint me as an out of touch individual will fail.”

Ms Badenoch said she was the candidate for the future whose honesty could “change things for the better”.

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