Tory leadership frontrunner Liz Truss was today accused by rival Rishi Sunak of putting vulnerable people “at risk of real destitution” after she indicated she will put tax cuts and fracking above support payments for families facing unaffordable fuel bills.
At a hustings event in Cheltenham, Ms Truss said she wanted to “deal with the issue of high costs”, but insisted she would not spell out how she would do so until she is installed in Downing Street in September.
Asked how she would deal with the cost-of-living crisis which will see millions of Britons facing domestic energy bills of £3,500 or more this autumn, Ms Truss said that “the first thing” she would do is lower taxes.
And she added: “The second thing I would do is focus on energy supply, because this is an energy supply problem and we need to deal with the root cause.”
Leadership rival Mr Sunak said he would deliver help to pensioners and the most vulnerable people in society by increasing the value of his £15bn support package, currently worth up to £1,200 per household.
And in a swipe at Ms Truss’s focus on immediate tax cuts, he said: “Liz’s tax plan is not going to help those groups of people.”
Reversing the recent 1.25 per cent hike in national insurance, as the foreign secretary has proposed, would deliver someone on Ms Truss’s salary £1,700 a year, while providing someone on the minimum wage “just over a quid a week” and giving nothing to pensioners, he said.
The former chancellor warned: “If you support the plan that Liz is suggesting… we are going to, as a Conservative government, leave millions of incredibly vulnerable people at the risk of real destitution.
“Now I think that is a moral failure.”
Mr Sunak rejected suggestions he should pull out of the contest to allow a new prime minister to be swiftly appointed to deal with the crisis, after polls suggesting he is trailing Ms Truss by a significant margin.
He said he would stay in the battle “for the simple reason that I’m fighting for what I believe is right for our country”.
And he dismissed the idea that he would quit parliament if he failed in his bid for the premiership saying he would continue to serve his North Yorkshire constituency of Richmond “for as long as they will have me”.
Ms Truss was also confronted by a Tory member at the event in the Gloucestershire town’s racecourse over her plan to cut green levies from energy bills and her opposition to solar panels in farmers’ fields.
one audience member told her that her plan to cut green levies totalling around £150 on energy bills “won’t touch the sides” of the cost-of-living crisis.
He added: “You say you go past farmers’ fields and you’re horrified to see solar panels. You’ll be even more horrified in a few years with drought, with crop failure and everything else caused by the climate emergency.
“Cutting green levies now sends a wrong message to business and it sends the wrong message to people. Do you think that’s good enough?”
Ms Truss responded: “I do not believe we can tax ourselves to growth. And I don’t believe we should tax ourselves to net zero.
“I want to achieve net zero, but I want to do it in a way that harnesses capital, that harnesses investment, that harnesses the City of London to actually invest in the new technologies.”
Ms Truss added: “I was an environmental activist before it was fashionable. I campaigned in the 1990s to protect the ozone layer. And it was Mrs Thatcher who signed the Montreal accord to protect it.
“But we don’t need to accept that environmental goods have to come through left-wing solutions. And fundamentally I’m about investment and growth, not tax and spend.”
Ms Truss won loud applause from her Conservative audience as she said she would allow fracking to boost the UK’s energy supply.
“We need to make sure we’re using our reserves in the North Sea and incentivizing companies to do that,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re fracking in parts of the country where there is local support for that taking place.”
Apparently forgetting for a moment that she was in Gloucestershire, she added: “And we need to get on we need to get on with delivering the small modular nuclear reactors which we produce here in Derbyshire and we need to get on with nuclear power stations as well.
“As prime minister, I will make sure I am working with the energy companies to get that supply on as quickly as possible.”
Ms Truss said she wanted to “make sure we’re dealing with the issue of high costs”, but refused to say what support she would offer to families unable to pay their bills.
“I can’t write the chancellor’s budget before I’ve even been selected as prime minister and I think that would be wrong,” she said.
“We need to look at exactly what the situation is in September. We need to look at what measures we can take both on taxes and supply and other measures. But what I’m not going to do is announce the results of that work.”