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Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have trashed each other’s economic plans as the blue-on-blue attacks intensified during their first head-to-head TV showdown.
Former chancellor Mr Sunak claimed there is “nothing Conservative” about Ms Truss’s approach and it would give the party “absolutely no chance” of winning the next election.
Foreign Secretary Ms Truss in turn suggested her rival would lead the country into a recession and criticised him for increasing taxes to the “highest rate in 70 years”.
On China, Ms Truss accused her rival of “pushing for closer trade relationships” while Mr Sunak said “Liz has been on a journey” to get to a point where she opposes closer ties.
Mr Sunak also sought to stress his decision to quit Mr Johnson’s government as a sign he acts according to his principles while Ms Truss stressed her loyalty to her current boss.
In a rare sign of harmony, both candidates said they would want the other to be involved in their government although allies of Ms Truss were reported to have said Mr Sunak had demonstrated “aggressive mansplaining and shouty private school behaviour” during the debate.
A snap poll by Opinium, based on a sample of 1,032 voters, found 39% believed Mr Sunak had performed best compared to 38% for Ms Truss.
The studio audience in Stoke was made up entirely of people who voted Conservative at the last general election and applauded more often for Mr Sunak.
With postal ballots set to arrive on Tory members’ doorsteps by August 5, Mr Sunak was under pressure to use the BBC debate and another hosted by TalkTV and the Sun on Tuesday to make an early breakthrough.
The pair clashed on the BBC after a weekend that saw allies of the two Tory leadership hopefuls trade increasingly personal attacks.
And there was no sign of that slowing as the debate opened on the economy.
Ms Truss said she would put an economic growth plan in place “immediately” if she becomes prime minister, along with imposing a temporary moratorium on the green energy levy.
The increase in national insurance would also be reversed, Ms Truss said.
Mr Sunak said he would like to make sure that his government “always” has policies in place to support through the cost-of-living crisis.
Ms Truss said her plans would see the government start paying down the debt in three years’ time, with Mr Sunak countering: “You’ve promised over £40 billion of unfunded tax cuts – £40 billion more borrowing.
“That is the country’s credit card and it’s our children and grandchildren, everyone here’s kids will pick up the tab for that.
“There’s nothing Conservative about it.”
Ms Truss later said: “No other country is putting up taxes at this moment, the OECD has described Rishi’s policies as contractionary.
“What does contractionary mean? It means it will lead to a recession.
“We know what happens when there’s a recession.”
Mr Sunak spoke over Ms Truss and warned inflation was a problem in the 1980s and it is a “problem we have now”, adding: “Liz, your plans, your own economic adviser has said that will lead to mortgage interest rates going up to 7%, can you imagine what that’s going to do for everyone here and everyone watching, that’s thousands of pounds on their mortgage bill?
“It’s going to tip millions of people into misery and it’s going to mean we have absolutely no chance of winning the next election either.”
Ms Truss highlighted Mr Sunak wants to raise corporation tax this autumn at a time of a “global economic crisis”.
She later said: “This Chancellor has raised taxes to the highest rate in 70 years and we’re now predicted a recession. The truth is in the figures.”
Ms Truss later described herself as “naturally a thrifty person” when asked about ways to help tackle climate change.
She also said she would not give Mr Sunak fashion advice, describing him as a “very well-dressed man”, when asked about criticism made by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries about his expensive taste in clothing.
Ms Truss was also asked about her suggestion that her comprehensive school background would make her a better prime minister.
Mr Sunak said he was “certainly not going to apologise” for his parents working hard to send him to a private school, with Ms Truss replying: “Winchester is a very, very good school, and I would love people for right across the country to have the opportunity to go to a school like that.”
The debate came just hours after a Conservative peer claimed Boris Johnson “does not want to resign” and “wished that he could carry on” as Prime Minister.
Lord Cruddas of Shoreditch, a former Conservative Party treasurer, said the comments were made to him by Mr Johnson over lunch at Chequers on Friday.
A Number 10 spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister has resigned as party leader and set out his intention to stand down as PM when the new leader is in place.”
Both candidates ruled out a job for Mr Johnson in their cabinet, with Ms Truss saying she believes he “needs a well-earned break” before eventually adding: “I am sure he will have a role, I am sure he will be vocal but he will not be part of the government.”
Mr Sunak was more direct in his reply by saying: “The simple answer for me is no.”
Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, the party’s national campaign co-ordinator, said: “These two continuity candidates gave their now familiar chorus of unfunded spending promises, bitter attacks, and a trashing of the Tories’ 12 years in government.”
A Liberal Democrat spokesperson delivered a one-word statement, stating: “Eurgh.”