By Paddy Kent
Last night, the latest Tory Leadership debate and the first head-to-head between the final two candidates, took place in Red-Wall Stoke, with an audience of Conservative voters.
Dominating the debate once again was tax policy and its economic impact, and it was this topic that led to a whole new meaning to Project Fear. On one side, Liz Truss wants to delay the repaying of government debt, providing her with the room to cut National Insurance and Corporation Tax. On the other, Rishi Sunak wants to maintain current tax levels and get the deficit down. He was vociferous in explaining that cutting tax was irresponsible, would stoke inflation and would lead to interest rates of over 7%. To exemplify this, he explained that the cost of a mortgage would increase by thousands of pounds a year. It was at this point that Truss dropped the Project Fear accusation. A nice barb, but had she anticipated his response (‘Liz, you’re the one who voted Remain and pushed Project Fear’.)? Rishi 1-0.
Rishi also brandished his ‘Leave’ credentials when asked to score Boris Johnson out of 10. Initially reluctant, he then had a brainwave ‘….10, for delivering Brexit’. 2-0 Rishi.
Incidentally, Truss, going first, gave Boris a ‘7’, but was able to emphasise that she had remained loyal to Boris, fuelling the narrative of Rishi as an ambitious backstabber. 2-1 Rishi.
Truss’ other thinly veiled attacks included ‘Winchester is a very nice school’ and Rishi, he of the £3,000 suit, is ‘a very finely dressed’ person. 2-2.
Despite topping the polls in the MPs’ ballots, Rishi is now the underdog as both vie for Tory members’ votes and last night seemed to be on the attack, repeatedly interrupting Truss, especially at the beginning of the debate. Nearly all politicians have (or should have) mastered the art of continuing to talk over people that attempt to interrupt them, but Truss seemed shaken by the interruptions, shaking her head, sighing and utilising an ‘Excuse me’ rebuke on at least three occasions before pleading with Sophie Rayworth to be allowed to finish a sentence. This certainly helped position her as the one to beat.
So, it seems that the consensus now is that Truss will win the members’ ballot unless Rishi lands a killer blow. Some may conclude that this debate was bringing down the curtain on this saga, even though there are still six weeks to go.