The final two candidates vying to become the United Kingdom’s next prime minister have gone head to head in a televised debate, clashing over the state of the economy, including each other’s tax and spending plans.
The primetime duel on Monday between foreign secretary Liz Truss and former finance minister Rishi Sunak kicked off a crucial 12-day period featuring three such live TV debates and four husting events for Conservative party members who will decide the contest and begin receiving their postal votes next week.
The weeks-old Tory leadership contest to replace outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson has turned increasingly bitter, with both camps butting heads.
Truss, the bookmakers’ favourite to win the leadership election, told Sunak his emphasis on balancing the government’s books would tip the economy into recession.
“Crashing the economy in order to pay a debt back quicker would be a massive mistake,” Truss said.
Sunak, whose resignation from the government earlier this month set in motion Johnson’s downfall, said Truss’s plan to cut taxes was nothing more than a “sugar rush” for the economy that would be followed by a crash.
The final stretch of a weeks-long contest has pit Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs banker who has raised the tax burden towards the highest level since the 1950s, against Truss, a convert to Brexit who has pledged to cut taxes and regulation.
Whoever wins when the result is announced on September 5 will inherit some of the most difficult conditions in Britain in decades.
Inflation is on course to hit 11 percent annually, growth is stalling, industrial action is on the rise and the pound is near historic lows against the dollar.
Their quarrel on Monday underlined divisions in Britain’s ruling party about the best way to manage the economy, with Truss pitching a continuation of Johnson’s big-spending ethos, and Sunak portraying the classic Conservative fiscal hawk.
“Does anyone think that the sensible thing to do is go on a massive borrowing spree worth tens of billions of pounds and fuel inflation even further?” asked Sunak, who repeatedly interrupted Truss.
Truss said she would challenge the economic orthodoxy of Britain’s powerful finance ministry and dismissed Sunak’s warnings about her plans as “project fear” – a line used by Brexit supporters during the 2016 referendum on the country’s European Union membership.
Reporting from Stoke-on-Trent, where the debate was held, Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull said the deepest differences between the two candidates were over the economy, including whether to lower taxes or control inflation.
“But there were areas of agreement on the environment and foreign policy towards China and Russia,” he added.
Over the weekend, Sunak announced plans to crack down on China’s influence, calling it the “number-one threat” to domestic and global security.
That followed Truss accusing him of being soft on UK adversaries when he was finance minister.
“I’m delighted that you’ve come around to my way of thinking,” she told Sunak as the issue featured at the debate.
Truss insisted his “tougher stance” had been driven by her Foreign Office tenure, but that as recently as a month ago Sunak was “pushing for closer trade relationships with China”.
Sunak said she herself had been “on a journey” after previously wanting close ties with Beijing.
A snap opinion poll of 1,032 voters from market research company Survation showed 39 percent of the British public thought Sunak performed best during the debate, compared with 38 percent who said Truss did.
Among Conservative voters, 47 percent thought Truss did best, with 38 percent for Sunak. Questions about Sunak family’s tax affairs and his prior decision to retain United States residency have dented his popularity among the public.
A YouGov survey of Conservative Party members published last week showed Truss held a 24-point lead over Sunak in the race to become the leader.
The opposition Labour Party said both candidates had trashed the Conservatives’ record in government during the debate, and that neither had offered a plan to tackle the worsening cost-of-living crunch.