Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are poised to go head to head in the latest Tory leadership hustings as the race for the top job intensifies.
Tax and spending are likely to be key points of contention as the hopefuls embark on their summer tour of the country, taking questions from party members who will ultimately decide who gets the keys to No 10 in September.
Other potential topics up for debate include immigration, identity politics, Brexit, defence, climate change and the NHS.
Mr Sunak will seek to regain his footing after he was accused of “flip-flopping” on his fiscal policy, as he pledged to temporarily slash VAT on energy bills despite repeatedly branding Ms Truss’s tax-cutting plans as “comforting fairy tales”.
He said he would remove VAT from domestic energy bills for a year if the price cap, currently just under £2,000 a year for the average home, exceeds £3,000 as is forecast by experts.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Secretary said she welcomed the pledge but challenged her rival to “do more” and reverse the national insurance rise.
She said during a visit to Romford: “I welcome the fact that he is now saying that we should cut taxes because that’s what we need to do.
“I’d like to see more. I’d like to see him commit to going and reversing the national insurance rise because that national insurance rise has hit families in the pocket.”
Mr Sunak had rejected calls for a VAT cut to energy bills in February, telling the Commons “there would be no guarantee that suppliers would pass on the discounts to all customers”.
Meanwhile, in a video clip on Twitter, the former chancellor said he had “another great day” campaigning in Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.
Another brilliant day on the road speaking to members about rural issues and how we can defeat Labour at the next election.
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) July 27, 2022
He told his followers: “We have been talking about everything on people’s minds, tackling the cost of living, how we realise the benefits of Brexit.”
Former chief whip Mark Harper, who is supporting Mr Sunak, defended the ex-chancellor’s decision to announce his pledge to cut VAT at this stage in the contest.
Asked why Mr Sunak did not open his campaign with those plans, he told BBC Newsnight: “He’s announced it because it looks like the energy price cap may rise higher by several hundred pounds than we had thought it would.
“And he’s always said very consistently, that if he needed to do more, he would.
“And he’s announced this particular policy now partly so that those people listening to this programme at home will have some peace of mind that if he were elected prime minister that actually he is always going to have their back in the same way he did during the pandemic.”
Later, Mr Sunak announced plans to make “downblousing” a criminal offence, as part of a major crackdown on sex offenders, to protect women and girls.
Ms Truss has also promised to introduce a standalone offence to criminalise street harassment, and a national domestic abuse register.
The hustings is the first of 12 for Tory members to quiz the final two candidates before voting closes on September 2, and will be a key moment for the pair to shore up support for their campaigns, following bitter clashes over policy.
The event will be held in Leeds, with Ms Truss expected to meet voters in the city in the morning.
It comes as mayors from across the North of England have written to the two contenders to express concerns about the Government’s plans for northern transport.
Andy Burnham, Tracy Brabin, Steve Rotheram, Oliver Coppard and Jamie Driscoll called on the winning candidate to meet with them to agree a “better way forward for the North”.
“This is a critical decision that will affect the lives of generations of Northerners to come. We owe it to them to show the highest possible ambition for what the North of England can be in the future,” they wrote.