The Conservative leadership race descended further into vicious mudslinging today as the remaining five candidates tore shreds off each other for 60 minutes in a televised debate.
Frontrunners Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss had a number of bruising encounters, with the ex-chancellor accusing the foreign secretary of peddling “something for nothing economics” that are closer in spirit to socialism than conservatism.
Truss slammed Sunak’s series of tax rises post-Covid in response.
“Raising taxes at this moment will choke off economic growth and it will prevent us getting the growth we need to pay off the debt,” Truss said.
She also defended some of her early gaffes in the campaign, saying that “I may not be the slickest presenter, but when I say I’ll do something, I do it”.
Sunak also attacked the economic plans of the other major candidate Penny Mordaunt, saying that “literally Jeremy Corbyn didn’t think” her calls to fund day-to-day public spending with borrowing “was the right approach” in the last General Election.
It came after a weekend of intense attacks between the camps played out in the Sunday newspapers, with further leaks aimed to damage Mordaunt in particular.
This included a report in The Sunday Times suggesting Mordaunt had misled people about her previous stance on transgender self-identification in a bid to win over Tory members.
Mordaunt – who is quickly losing momentum in polling after two lacklustre debate performances – decried the “smears” and said “this is the type of toxic politics people want to get away from”.
There were flare ups across the debate tonight as candidates also lined up to attack Sunak after his strong early performance in the leadership race.
Kemi Badenoch questioned his commitment to stopping billions of pounds of Covid fraud, while Mordaunt questioned his alleged reluctance to hike defence spending further while chancellor.
There were also further attacks on Sunak for his policies post-Covid to hike taxes to their highest level in decades.
The ex-chancellor is refusing to outline billions of pounds of tax cuts, unlike the remaining five candidates, as he says it will further fuel inflation and inevitably lead to the Bank of England increasing interest rates again.
He said: “We’ve got to the point where even Keir Starmer is attacking leadership candidates for peddling the fantasy economics of unfunded promises.
“If we’re not for sound money, what is the point of the Conservative Party? It’s the most Conservative of Conservative values.”
The blue-on-blue attacks of current, or recently resigned, ministers saw Tom Tugendhat quip: “I’m finding it very difficult to understand who’s disowning, and who’s defending, the record of the last few years that they’ve been in government.”
One Labour source said the fact the candidates “would lay so much on a plate for us like that” showed that “none of them are ready”.
Labour shadow minister without a portfolio said: “As the contenders deny their own records in government and squabble over their fantasy economic plans, what families across the country who are really struggling with the cost-of-living crisis need is a fresh start.”
The debate also saw Truss and Badenoch openly question whether the Bank of England’s current mandate and independence should be changed – claims that Sunak said made him “worried”.
MPs will whittle down these five candidates to two by Thursday through a series of votes, with the final contenders facing off in a six-week campaign to win the votes of the party’s 200,000 members.
Sunak, Mordaunt and Truss finished in the top three in the first two MPs votes last week.
It is widely expected that Tugendhat will finish last in tomorrow’s vote.
A new poll of Tory members from Conservative Home today showed Truss was now the favourite to be next PM, followed by Sunak.
It comes after Mordaunt dominated Tory member polling last week.