Tory debate: Truss accuses Sunak of 'Project Fear' as he taunts her for Remain campaign

Sunak and Truss clash during BBC leadership debate

Liz Truss stood out from Rishi Sunak, wanting to cut to stop the economy “crashing. But ex-Chancellor Mr Sunak said he would fight inflation, protecting the economy and the NHS before giving tax handouts to voters. In the first live head-to-head debate of their campaign to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, frontrunner Ms Truss insisted swift action was needed because millions are struggling.

The Foreign Secretary insisted she was the one to deliver and to turn around the economy: “I get things done. I don’t just talk, I act.”

The final two contenders in the race for No 10 clashed repeatedly over the economy in the hour-long debate on BBC1, in front of an audience of Tory voters in Stoke-on-Trent.

Mr Sunakr, who interrupted his rival repeatedly, claimed Ms Truss’s plan for £30billion of tax cuts would send mortgage rates soaring to seven per cent and put pressure on thousands of households.

But she in turn accused him of “scaremongering” over tax cuts: “This is Project Fear!”

When the former chancellor taunted her for backing the Remain campaign in the EU referendum and supporting the “Project Fear” tactics of the anti-Brexit camp, the Foreign Secretary insisted she had learnt lessons from the experience.

She hit back by accusing him of following the high tax policies of the Gordon Brown era.

Liz Truss said she would “act immediately” to help people who are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

The Foreign Secretary said on the BBC televised debate: “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.

Ms Truss said tax cuts were urgently needed to help struggling families.

The first Conservative leadership debate last night boiled down to a simple question - tax cuts now or later

The first Conservative leadership debate last night boiled down to a simple question – tax cuts now (Image: Jeff Overs/BBC/Getty)

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Liz Truss said she would also put in place a “growth plan to grow our economy”.

She said: “People around the country are struggling with some of the worst cost of living problems that we’ve 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.

Ms Truss insisted she was “on the side” of ordinary working people.

“I want to be on the side of people who do the right thing – people who invest in companies, people who go out to work every day, the self employed, the people running small businesses.

“That’s the people I’m on the side of and the fact is I think we have a chancellor who has raised taxes to the highest rate for 70 years right now and we are heading for a recession,” the Foreign Secretary said.

Ms Truss wanted to boost the economy by realising “post Brexit opportunities.”

She accused Mr Sunak of following Labour-style tax policies.

“The reality here is this is the same line that we heard from Gordon Brown when he was in the treasury, the same line being repeated,” she said.

Rishi Sunak has said that as the situation changes on the ground, he is “always” going to support people through it.

Responding to the first question on the BBC televised debate, the former chancellor and Foreign Secretary Liz 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.”

The former chancellor claimed his rivals plan for £30billion of tax cuts would send mortgage rates soaring.

But Ms Truss accused him of “scaremongering” in a “Project Fear” campaign.

Crashing the economy in order to pay a debt back quicker is a “massive mistake”, Liz Truss has said.

“I would obviously make sure, my chancellor would make sure that we optimise the way we are taking out those debts.

“The point I am making is… 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.”

Mr Sunak fought back by claiming that tax cuts would have to wait until inflation is brought back under control.

“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”.

Ms Truss accused Mr Sunak of following Labour-style tax policies

Ms Truss accused Mr Sunak of following Labour-style tax policies (Image: Jeff Overs/BBC/Getty)

Last night’s studio audience was made up of voters who backed the Tories at the last general election in 2019.

Stoke-on-Trent Central was chosen as the venue because the constituency was among a string of previously Labour strongholds won by the Conservatives in the election.

Retaining voters’ support in previous Labour seats is seen as a major challenge for Boris Johnson’s successor.

Ms Truss and Mr Sunak also clashed about Boris Johnson’s ejection from Downing Street.

The Foreign Secretary was unapologetic about remaining loyal to the Prime Minister and said the resigning her job to force him out would have been a “dereliction of duty.”

She also insisted Mr Johnson did not want to come back to Downing Street and needed a “well-earned break.”

She said:“Having having spent time with him this week on foreign affairs, I very very much suspect that he would not want a future role in the government.

“I think he needs a well earned break from what has been a very difficult few years.”

She added: “I supported Boris for the leadership. I was his first cabinet supporter to come out. I campaigned with him. He did a brilliant job of delivering Brexit.

“He did a brilliant job of delivering an 80 seat majority including gaining the support of places like Stoke on Trent, which hasn’t been too Conservative before.

“And yes, he made mistakes. And he admitted he made mistakes but I didn’t think the mistakes he made were sufficient that the Conservative Party should have rejected him.”

Mr Sunak said Mr Johnson was “one of the most remarkable people I’ve met.”

He said: “I was very grateful to him that he gave me that job and I’m really proud of all the things we achieved in government together, actually getting the Brexit gridlock paralysis that we all remember getting that broken, winning that election victory helping get the country through COVID, standing up to Ukraine, those are all things.

“I was proud to serve under his leadership and achieve but it got to a point where for me personally – enough was enough.

He added: “I thought all the things that were going on on the conduct side, were not right and we clearly have very different views about the direction of travel on the economy. And so for me, I acted out of principle.”

Blue-on-blue attacks hurt whole party

Hostile clashes between the Tory leadership contenders could damage the party’s general election chances, ministers have warned. After backers of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were drawn into barbed exchanges, senior Tory figures yesterday called for a change of tone – and an end to personal “blue-on-blue” attacks.

Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling called the feuding “more toxic than I’ve ever seen”, saying the “damage…could see us out of power for a decade”.

Cabinet Office minister Johnny Mercer warned that the bickering has put them on a “trajectory” to losing votes.

He said: “The puerile nature of this leadership contest is embarrassing.”

Blows were still traded yesterday, with former health secretary Jeremy Hunt saying Mr Sunak is “prepared to be honest with the country” in a swipe at Ms Truss’s tax plans.

Education Secretary James Cleverly meanwhile trashed Mr Sunak’s idea for migrants to be housed on cruise ships, calling it “quite negative”.

Sunak signs up for tough TV interview

Liz Truss will skip a televised interview with Andrew Neil – despite Rishi Sunak signing up for the live challenge, writes Sophie Wingate. Mr Sunak has agreed to be grilled by Mr Neil – a notoriously formidable interviewer – in a special Tory leadership programme on Channel 4 this Friday at 7.30pm.

Louisa Compton, head of news and current affairs at Channel 4, said: “We hope Liz Truss also agrees – and allows the British public to better understand what she stands for.”

But an ally of the Foreign Secretary said her “focus” is on speaking directly to Tory members. They said: “I know some members watch Channel 4 news but she wants to get out across the country and get her pitch directly to them.

“Just because Rishi’s doing it doesn’t mean we need to do it as well. We may review things. But for now it is a no.”

Boris Johnson refused to be interviewed by Neil during the 2019 general election campaign – and was accused of “running scared”.

Comment by Leo McKinstry – Daily Express columnist

The Tory leadership debate represented a crucial moment in the contest to choose Britain’s next Prime Minister. The stakes could hardly have been higher or the pressures more intense.

As they took up their positions in the oddly discomfiting studio, full of blue geometric images, each of the candidates knew their ultimate fate could depend on the quality of their performance.

For Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor who is well behind in the race according to polls, this was a golden opportunity to regain ground through his renowned skills of persuasion, his plausible manner, and his command of economics.

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary and runaway frontrunner, had the opposite problem. A notoriously robotic communicator, she had everything to lose from a stumbling appearance.

Indeed, she had almost wrecked her leadership chances with a nervous effort in the first televised leadership debate, on Channel 4, though she redeemed herself with a more combative showing in the ITV clash two nights later.

That ITV event was notable for its innovations, including the absence of studio audience and the need for candidates to question each other.

Predictably the BBC’s approach was more traditional.

Held in Stoke, which fell to the Tories in 2019 as part of the collapse of the Red Wall, the debate featured a sullen audience of Conservative voters, most of whom seemed profoundly disillusioned. Host Sophie Raworth is not a broadcaster who favours fireworks over convention.

Nevertheless, the clash was highly instructive and made for compelling viewing, partly because there is a genuine policy difference between the two over the economy.

Truss favours tax cuts to promote growth, while Sunak promotes fiscal responsibility to tackle inflation.

The chasm between their outlooks gave a real edge to their exchanges, and Truss’s campaign team will have been delighted that she came across the more measured politician.

Over the past fortnight, she has been denounced for peddling “fantasy” promises, but last night she put across her case forcefully, even if she is still not entirely convincing.

She was unable to answer the argument that her plan for unfunded tax cuts would stoke inflation and push up interest rates beyond seven per cent.

Yet, for all her weaknesses, this was not a satisfactory night for Sunak. He tried to dominate but there was a desperation about his performance, especially in the way he kept interrupting his opponent.

At times, he appeared to be more of a heckler than a statesman, the opposite of the trustworthy image he wants.

Moreover, Truss was quick enough to score telling points, on China and energy bills.

His slightly panicky contribution was certainly no game-changer, and it is likely that the trajectory of the contest will remain the same, with Truss well in front.

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