Truss and Sunak trade blows on immigration and China ahead of TV debate

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Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will take part in another TV debate (Jonathan Hordle/ITV/PA) (PA Media)
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will take part in another TV debate (Jonathan Hordle/ITV/PA) (PA Media)

The two Tory leadership hopefuls have been engaged in bitter clashes over immigration, China and tax cuts ahead of a crunch TV debate on Monday evening.

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will enter the first head-to-head TV debate on the BBC on Monday after a weekend that saw both camps trade increasingly personal attacks.

Allies of the Foreign Secretary were quick to lash out at the former chancellor over his warning that China represents the “biggest-long term threat to Britain”.

In a hardening of tone against China, Mr Sunak promised to close all 30 of the country’s Confucius Institutes in the UK.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

Funded by the Chinese Government, they are ostensibly culture and language centres but critics have labelled them propaganda tools amid worsening relations between the West and China.

Mr Sunak accused China of “stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities”, pledging to work with US President Joe Biden to stand up to China at home and abroad.

But those claims were met with scepticism by Truss supporters, with former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith calling the announcement “surprising”.

Sir Iain, the co-chairman of the inter-parliamentary alliance on China, said: “Over the last two years, the Treasury has pushed hard for an economic deal with China. This is despite China sanctioning myself and four UK parliamentarians.

“Despite China brutally cracking down on peaceful democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, illegally occupying the South China Sea, committing genocide on the Uyghurs and increasing its influence in our universities.

“After such a litany, I have one simple question, where have you been over the last two years?”

A spokesperson for Ms Truss said: “Liz has strengthened Britain’s position on China since becoming Foreign Secretary and helped lead the international response to increased Chinese aggression.

“This will only continue when she becomes prime minister and seeks to expand her network of liberty around the world.”

Mr Sunak also came under pressure from his rival over his strategy to combat illegal migration, as he seeks to win over the Tory grassroots voters who will decide the next Conservative leader.

Calling the current system “broken”, he offered a 10-point plan on Sunday that included a commitment to a narrower definition of who qualifies for asylum compared to that from the ECHR, with enhanced powers to detain, tag and monitor illegal migrants.

Mr Sunak, who was on the campaign trail on Sunday, also promised to give Parliament control over who comes to the UK by creating an annual cap on the number of refugees accepted each year, albeit one that can be changed in the case of sudden emergencies.

But those proposals were picked apart by Truss allies, who raised questions about Mr Sunak’s proposals, arguing that it was unclear how the refugee quota would work and suggesting that some of his plans amounted to a “rebrand”.

Allies of Ms Truss also queried a suggestion from Mr Sunak that illegal migrants could be housed on cruise ships, something the Truss camp suggested would amount to arbitrary detention and a breach of both domestic and international law.

Mr Sunak sought to defend his proposals on Sunday afternoon, telling the BBC that tackling illegal migration was a “priority” for him and that “no options should be off the table”.

But he was unable to give a clear assurance that his policy proposals would be legal.

“What we do need to do is be very honest about the challenges that the ECHR, these European laws, have on our ability to grapple with this problem.

The Truss campaign had said that as prime minister she would increase the UK’s frontline Border Force by 20% and double the Border Force Maritime staffing levels, with Ms Truss claiming that her plan to tackle illegal migration would be given a strong legal foundation by the new UK Bill of Rights.

The plans from both candidates generated anger in some quarters, with Oxfam labelling as “cruel” any plan to link UK aid payments to countries’ co-operation with immigration removals and Amnesty International saying that making policy only to please Tory members has caused “chaos and backlogs”.

Elsewhere, Ms Truss unveiled plans to boost UK growth rates with “full-fat freeports”, a move that may be seen as a bid to steal a march on Mr Sunak, who has been an advocate of free ports since his days as a backbench MP.

Pitched as the cornerstone of her tax-cutting economic vision, the Truss campaign said that the plans would see brownfield sites and other locations turned into “investment zones”.

Liz Truss speaks to supporters during a visit to Ashley House, Marden, Kent (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)
Liz Truss speaks to supporters during a visit to Ashley House, Marden, Kent (James Manning/PA) (PA Wire)

Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will use a speech in Liverpool on Monday to pitch his party’s vision of “growth, growth, growth”.

In the speech, he is expected to predict more “Thatcherite cosplay” from Mr Sunak and Ms Truss when they square up in the BBC studios on Monday, the first of three hustings over the next few days.

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