In a fierce attack on his rival’s plans for the looming crisis, the underdog in the leadership race said the public would not accept a “moral failure” to help the most vulnerable.
Ms Truss has attacked “handouts” while planning tax cuts – but, at hustings in Belfast, Mr Sunak warned they would give £1,700 to a someone on a cabinet minister’s salary, but only £1 a week to the lowest-paid.
“If we don’t directly help those vulnerable groups, those people on the lowest incomes, those people who are pensioners, then it will be a moral failure of the Conservative government,” the former chancellor said.
“I don’t think the British people would ever forgive us for that. And that’s not something that I would ever do as prime minister – because it is the wrong thing to do,”
“I think we have got to the stage in our economy where taxes are too high and they are potentially choking off growth,” she told Tory members in Northern Ireland.
But Mr Sunak warned of inflation, on the day it hit 10 per cent, arguing putting unfunded tax cuts “on the nation’s credit card” would “make inflation worse and last far longer”.
The hustings also hinted at a divide between the candidates over the Northern Ireland Protocol and a willingness to compromise to avoid a full-blown trade war with the EU.
Ms Truss vowed she would not bend and would deliver the aims of her Bill before parliament – to restore “free flowing” trade across the Irish Sea and tax powers in Northern Ireland, and remove the role of EU judges.
“I will not accept anything that does not deliver on the key issues I’ve talked about,” she said – warning power-sharing at Stormont would not be restored until the crisis was resolved.
Ms Truss admitted the Bill will be stalled by peers – probably until next year – telling the hustings: “It might take time to get this Bill through the House of Lords, but the sooner we start the sooner we finish.”
Mr Sunak insisted he was also committed to the legislation, but added the UK should talk to the EU to “see if we can find a negotiated outcome”.
Ms Truss faced tough questions about the UK ending years of prevarication by legalising abortion in Northern Ireland – an act branded “undemocratic” by one male Tory.
But she was applauded as she replied: “I’m afraid I don’t agree with you. We are a United Kingdom and we need all of our laws to apply right across the United Kingdom. That is what being a Union is.”
And she praised the “excellent” Boris Johnson, pointing to Brexit, the delivery of Covid vaccines and “standing up to Vladimir Putin”, adding: “I’m proud of what he did.”