Liz Truss was accused of making a second major U-turn within a week, after her campaign tried to play down suggestions there would be no “handouts” to help millions of struggling people through an already worsening cost of living crisis this winter.
Having been forced to abandon plans to cut public sector pay for roles outside London and the south-east, a senior Truss supporter was dispatched over the weekend to temper comments she made about emergency support payments given rising energy costs.
The row was over an interview Truss gave to the Financial Times on Friday, in which she said she would “look at what more can be done” in the light of warnings from the Bank of England about a 15-month recession and double-digit inflation lasting well into 2023.
However, she added: “The way I would do things is in a Conservative way of lowering the tax burden, not giving out handouts.”
Penny Mordaunt, who was narrowly beaten by Truss in the penultimate stage of the Tory leadership race and now is backing the foreign secretary, said she had been misinterpreted.
“It’s not that she’s ruling out all future help,” the trade minister told Sky News. “What she is looking at, though, is enabling people to keep more of the money that they earn.
“It makes no sense to take money off of people and then to give it back in very, very complicated ways. We need to simplify this and we need to ensure that households are as resilient as possible and stopping taking large sums of tax from people is one way of doing that.”
But a source within Sunak’s team said Truss was “cut and pasting her own U-turns” by announcing something “in black and white”, before claiming it had been misunderstood, and then getting allies to “poop scoop the next day”.
“Stop blaming journalists (again) – reporting what you actually say isn’t ‘misinterpreted’,” tweeted Mark Harper, a former chief whip. “2nd time in just 5 days. This kind of thing happened under the current PM & hugely damaged trust in us all.”
Truss was urged by a Sunak spokesperson to “explain to the millions of people worried about rising bills in the autumn whether she stands by the statement she gave Friday ruling out further support payments or has now changed her mind and is willing to consider them”.
The economic crisis on the horizon “requires big, bold interventions”, said Oliver Dowden, the former Conservative party co-chair, who is backing Sunak.
He insisted the former chancellor would “be willing to take further action as required” and added: “We have to get real as a nation about the scale of the challenges that we face and the leadership that’s required through it.”
Dowden said Truss’s tax cuts were “not fit to deal with the scale of the challenge that we are facing”, and claimed removing the national insurance rise would give a full-time worker on the national living wage just £59, while someone on a six-figure salary would get more than £1,000.
Another Sunak supporter, the Tory MP Angela Richardson, said Truss had effectively “ruled out direct support payments this winter for those impacted by the cost of living crunch” and that “her plans won’t help those who need it most like pensioners and low-paid workers”.