Next televised debate set for Sunday as ruling party looks to choose two candidates to put to a final vote by party members.
The five remaining candidates to become Conservative party leader and Britain’s next prime minister have clashed over tax and honesty in politics in their first televised debate, as they fight for a place in the two-person runoff.
An initial field of 11 has been whittled down in two days of votes by MPs from the ruling party, but none has yet emerged as the obvious successor to Boris Johnson who announced he was stepping down after a wave of government resignations over his handling of months of scandals.
Former finance minister Rishi Sunak, who was among those who quit Johnson’s government, has topped the two votes, followed by former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt and foreign minister Liz Truss. Polls suggest Mordaunt is the most popular with party members who will decide the winner, while Truss has the backing of a number of figures on the party’s right as well as Johnson loyalists.
The 90-minute debate on Friday night – the first chance the candidates have had to pitch their credentials to a national television audience – saw relatively few direct confrontations.
But when they did erupt, it was largely over taxation, with Sunak forced to defend his tax plans from rivals who are keen to see immediate cuts in taxation.
The wealthy politician, whose standing was damaged by revelations that his wife had so-called “non-dom” status and had not been paying tax, urged caution and patience as the United Kingdom grapples with the worst inflation in 40 years.
“Borrowing your way out of inflation isn’t a plan, it’s a fairytale,” Sunak told Truss, as she touted her tax-slashing plans.
“You cannot tax your way to growth,” Truss said. “I think it is wrong to put taxes up.”
Question of trust
The five candidates for the top job initially faced hostile questions over trust and integrity.
That gave the outside hopefuls – Tom Tugendhat, a prominent backbencher and chair of the foreign affairs committee, and Kemi Badenoch, a former equalities minister – an opportunity to pitch themselves as untainted and a chance for the party and Britain to start afresh.
“Are you serving the people of the United Kingdom or are you serving your career? Because that’s the real question tonight,” Tugendhat said, repeatedly drawing applause from the audience.
A snap poll of 1,159 viewing voters by Opinium found 36 percent thought the former army officer performed best, followed by a quarter citing Sunak. Mordaunt and Badenoch were on 12 percent each, with Truss polling just six percent. Voters do not get a say in the contest, which is decided in a postal ballot by about 200,000 members of the Conservative party.
In a sign of the shadow cast by Johnson, the contenders were asked if they thought he was honest.
Tugendhat shook his head, Badenoch said “sometimes” while the others equivocated.
Mordaunt appeared uneasy about directly criticising the party’s outgoing leader.
“There have been some really severe issues and I think he has paid a price for that,” she said.
A second televised debate will take place on Sunday before another vote by Conservative MPs on Monday that should further whittle down the field.
Legislator ballots will end on Wednesday, with the party’s rank-and-file members choosing from the two finalists in a postal ballot following nationwide campaigning and hustings.
The winner will be announced on September 5.