London: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the two finalists in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as the Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister, were grilled on their policies in the first hustings directly addressing Tory party members who will be voting in the election.
While the economy and cost-of-living crises were the focal points as in earlier television debates, there were wider questions at the hustings in Leeds in Yorkshire, northern England, on Thursday night from the membership reflecting their loyalty to Johnson.
In a dramatic moment, a Tory member questioned Sunak’s decision to quit as Chancellor earlier this month and accused the former minister of back-stabbing his former boss.
“You’re a good salesman and you have many strong attributes, but many people continue to support Johnson who has delivered consistently through treacherous waters,” one Tory audience member from West Yorkshire said to Sunak.
“Many people unfortunately see that you’ve stabbed him in the back. He is the man who made you a senior politician. And some people don’t want to see that in No. 10,” he said. Sunak responded by saying he was left with no choice after it had become clear that there was “a significant difference of opinion” between the pair on the economic direction of the country.
“There is no way that the Prime Minister and Chancellor cannot be joined at the hip with regard to economic policy, particularly at a time when the economy faces real challenges. So, I was left with no choice,” he said.
The British Indian Tory MP for Richmond, North Yorkshire, went on to insist that he was “well placed to bring the party back together because I’ve already drawn support from across the party”. He sought to strike a chord, dubbing his northern England connection as a North Yorkshire MP as “the greatest honour of my life”, as did his opponent who grew up in the region.
Sunak, who is trailing behind Foreign Secretary Truss in polling of Conservative Party members, pitched himself as the underdog who “hasn’t taken the easy road” with his plans to hold off on large tax cuts.
In his opening speech, he warned it was not responsible to “mortgage our children and grandchildren’s future to make our lives easier now” – in a veiled dig at his rival’s plans to cut taxes immediately if she becomes the prime minister.
He was also forced to deny U-turning on his position with an announcement earlier in the week that he would cut VAT on energy bills, saying his plans were time-limited and temporary.
The former Cabinet minister did receive applause at points during the session, including for his tough stance on immigration as one of the issues he wants to “grip as quickly as possible” as the prime minister with a 10-point plan.
The next hustings, being organised by the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) ahead of postal ballots being mailed out to members from next week, is scheduled for Exeter in south-west England on Monday.
Meanwhile, in what is being seen as a blow to Sunak’s chances, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace – himself a frontrunner to replace Johnson until he decided not to contest the election – endorsed Truss in the race.
Writing in ‘The Times‘, he says the Foreign Secretary is “authentic” and had the experience to address the country’s challenges.
The senior Tory MP highlights how he has worked with Truss in “Cabinet, bilateral meetings and international summits” and concluded that she may not be a “slick salesperson”, but she “stands her ground” and “is straight and means what she says”.
“It is not that Rishi isn’t a capable Cabinet minister. I am sure like others in the contest he could do the job of Prime Minister, but from Day One the new Prime Minister needs to know their way around the international community as well as the Treasury. Only Liz can do that,” he writes.