Conservative leadership race: London will be the engine room of our drive to level up Britain, vows Rishi Sunak

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Conservative leadership race: London will be the engine room of our drive to level up Britain, vows Rishi Sunak
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Rishi Sunak has pledged to help London’s economy thrive as he and Liz Truss prepared for their first direct pitches to Conservative members.

Speaking ahead of Thursday night’s hustings event in Leeds, the former Chancellor told the Evening Standard that the Government’s flagship levelling-up agenda would not mean levelling down the capital.

“As Chancellor I championed the industries that make London special,” Mr Sunak said. “Whether it’s hospitality with all the support that it got through the pandemic or whether it’s financial services and making sure that the City remains the most competitive place in the world, I want to continue to support it to be successful.”

This evening’s event at Leeds United’s Elland Road football ground is the first of 12 hustings being held around the country over the next five weeks before around 160,000 Tory party members choose their next leader and Britain’s new Prime Minister by September 5.

After Monday night’s acrimonious live BBC TV debate, Ms Truss and Mr Sunak are under pressure to stop the “blue on blue” attacks which Tory grandees say have handed a gift to Labour.

But ahead of the hustings, Culture Secretary and Truss supporter Nadine Dorries risked stoking the tensions further as she accused the former Chancellor of being out of touch with ordinary voters.

Ms Dorries caused a storm earlier this week when she tweeted newspaper reports that the former Chancellor wore a bespoke suit worth £3,500 and £450 Prada loafers when he attended a campaign event in the north east of England. At the same time she contrasted Mr Sunak’s wardrobe with Ms Truss’s own choice of earrings which she said came from Claire’s Accessories and cost £4.50.

Asked about her comments on BBC Breakfast, Ms Dorries said she stood by them and added: “It’s about judgments and about who voters can relate to and who voters think have walked in their shoes and understand their lives.

“I believe the polling has shown...that voters do believe that Liz Truss is somebody who is more in touch with their lives. You can be the richest man in the world or woman, that doesn’t stop you being Prime Minister at all. But what you do have to do is understand and relate to the lives that people lead.”

She later accused Mr Sunak of being behind a “ruthless coup” to remove Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, and criticised him for “mansplaining” during a rancorous televised BBC debate on Monday

With Mr Sunak behind in early polls of Tory members — many of whom are expected to vote soon after receiving their ballot papers next week — the former Chancellor is facing a race against time to close the gap on Ms Truss.

Both contenders have vowed to stick to the Prime Minister’s flagship plans to level up the country, with the Foreign Secretary announcing this morning that she would revive plans for the Northern Powerhouse Rail line from Liverpool to Leeds.

But London business leaders fear that whoever becomes Prime Minister might overlook the capital’s economy as it bounces back from the damage caused by the pandemic.

Last week the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry wrote to both contenders urging them not to ignore deprivation in the capital as it looks to tackle inequality across the whole of the UK.

“Levelling-up must mean helping with business start-ups and entrepreneurial growth in deprived areas of London as well as levelling up the rest of the country,” wrote Richard Burge, LCCI chief executive.

But Mr Sunak said: “My background is in innovation and I want to make sure this is the most innovative economy in the world and London has a fantastic track record of producing world-class businesses and I know what it takes to create an environment for those businesses to succeed.

“Whether it’s reforming our high skill migration visas regime to attract the best and brightest from around the world to come and work in those companies or start those companies. Whether it’s getting all those companies the capital they need to grow and expand.”

London business chiefs are also calling on the Tory leadership contenders to underpin the capital’s economic recovery with a long-term funding settlement for Transport for London.

Mr Sunak told the Standard he was open to the idea of negotiating a long-term deal for TfL if he wins the race for No10 but added: “I would also make sure we hold the Mayor to account for what’s happened at TfL over the past few years. And it’s right that London taxpayers get good value services for the money they are paying.”

The former Chancellor tried to boost his bid for No10 this week by announcing a plan to slash VAT on energy bills, a move which drew claims of a U-turn.

But with Ms Truss offering much broader tax cuts to boost economic growth, he insisted he won’t shift his tough stance on the economy even if it makes it harder for him to win over voters.

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