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Rishi Sunak engaged in more furious exchanges with Tory leadership rivals Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt as the contenders to succeed Boris Johnson faced off in a second televised debate.
The former chancellor accused Ms Truss of peddling “something-for-nothing” economics after she said he was choking off growth by raising taxes to their highest level in 70 years.
And after Ms Mordaunt said she would not keep to his rule of only borrowing to invest, he said even former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not advocate such a fiscal loosening.
After she was criticised for a poor performance in the first debate, Ms Truss immediately went on the offensive in the second encounter, staged by ITV, by attacking Mr Sunak’s record in the Treasury.
“Rishi, you have raised taxes to the highest level in 70 years. That is not going to drive economic growth,” she said.
“You raised national insurance, even though people like me opposed it in Cabinet at the time because we could have afforded to fund the NHS through general taxation.
“The fact is that raising taxes at this moment will choke off economic growth; it will prevent us getting the revenue we need to pay off the debt.”
Mr Sunak said the pandemic damaged the economy and public finances had to be rebuilt.
“I’d love to stand here and say, ‘Look, I’ll cut this tax, that tax and another tax and it will all be OK.’ But you know what? It won’t,” he said.
“There’s a cost to these things and the cost of higher inflation, higher mortgage rates, eroded savings. And you know what? This something-for-nothing economics isn’t Conservative. It’s socialism.”
Ms Mordaunt said the limited tax cuts she advocated were not inflationary and people need help now with the cost of living.
“I don’t understand why Rishi doesn’t understand that,” she said.
Mr Sunak said: “It is one thing to borrow for long-term investment. It is a whole other thing to put the day-to-day bills on the country’s credit card. It is not just wrong, it is dangerous.
“Even Jeremy Corbyn didn’t go that far.”
Mr Sunak added: “If we are not for sound money, what is the point of the Conservative Party?”
There were further bad tempered exchanges between Ms Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch – who had accused Ms Mordaunt in the first debate of having pushed a policy of gender self-identification for people who wanted to legally change their gender when she had government responsibility for the issue.
Following further reports in the press casting doubts on her denials, Ms Mordaunt said: “I know why this is being done but I would say all attempts to paint me as an out of touch individual will fail.”
Ms Badenoch repeatedly tried to interrupt, saying: “Penny, I was just telling the truth. I am telling the truth.”
Ms Truss also denied that she was running a negative campaign following attacks on Mr Sunak by some of her supporters accusing him of bringing down Boris Johnson.
“I certainly don’t believe in that kind of campaign. It is not the kind of campaign I am fighting. I am fighting a positive campaign about the future,” she said.
The debate took place ahead of the third round of voting by MPs on Monday, with one more candidate due to to be eliminated, leaving just four.
Tom Tugendhat, who was fifth in the second round, sought to make a virtue of the fact that he alone of the remaining contenders had not served in government.
He said those who had been ministers under Boris Johnson “lent credibility to the chaos” which made it difficult for the Conservatives to win the next general election.
“Whatever your responsibility was in that government, whatever your place in that government was, Keir Starmer in two years’ time is going to hold that record against us,” he said.
“We need to make sure we’re winning Conservative seats across the country, and even really good people lend credibility to the chaos.”
Ms Badenoch said she was “not ashamed of anything we did” while she was in government and that they had “a lot to be proud of”.
“Serving in government is not easy. It requires taking difficult decisions. Tom has never done that. It’s very easy for him to criticise what we’ve been doing, but we have been out there on the front line making the case,” she said.
Mr Tugendhat retorted that, as a former Army officer, he had been on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq and had led “in the argument against Putin and China”.
She responded: “You haven’t taken any decisions, talking is easy.”
But asked by presenter Julie Etchingham to put their hands up if they would give Mr Johnson a job in the their government if he was willing to serve, none of them did so.