Rishi Sunak was interviewed by Andrew Neil on Channel 4 tonight. He was quizzed on inflation, the NHS backlog and more. Liz Truss, the bookies’ favourite, declined to take part in an interview with Neil.
8.50 p.m. – Did Sunak’s gamble pay off?
Kate Andrews writes… Rishi Sunak took a major risk tonight, agreeing to a one-on-one interview with Andrew Neil on Channel 4 news. As Katy Balls says on our reaction podcast, more often than not politicians come crawling out of Neil’s interviews. At best, they hope to survive them. All things considered Sunak did indeed survive tonight’s interview. But is survival enough? He agreed to the grilling in an effort to kickstart his polling amongst the Tory grassroots; on his own admission he is behind Liz Truss. Tonight’s interview provided a lot of interesting discussion, as well as a reminder that – agree with him or not – Sunak can hold his own when it comes to economic debate. But voters will be familiar with these credentials. The bigger question, soon to be revealed in the polls, will be whether he managed to sway hearts and minds. Read more here.
8.03 p.m. – Is Sunak too posh for PM?
Katy Balls writes… Andrew Neil has just brought up an awkward clip that’s been circulating on social media. In the clip, a young Rishi Sunak is seen saying that he has a mix of friends before suggesting he has working class friends and then suggesting he doesn’t after all. Sunak responds to the question by refusing to get into the detail – suggesting a lot of people misspeak in their youth and that he ultimately does understand the real world from his childhood where he helped his parents with work.
8.00 p.m. – No answers on asylum questions
Kate Andrews writes… Andrew Neil asks if there is something ‘unsavoury’ in Sunak’s willingness – coming from an immigrant family, that he is prepared to cap and turn away asylum seekers with a valid claim to come to the UK. It’s an extremely difficult question to answer, noted by Sunak’s decision (more or less) not to answer it. Sunak pivoted to his answer we’ve heard before, that his family came to the UK legally, while others do not. But it was clear Neil was asking Sunak about people with rightful claims to seek asylum in the UK. On that, we didn’t get an answer.
“Is there not something unsavoury about the son of successful middle-class migrants prepared to turn away asylum seekers with a valid claim?”
— Channel 4 (@Channel4) July 29, 2022
7.56 p.m. – Sunak shaky on the NHS
Isabel Hardman writes… Not a reassuring section on the NHS. Sunak boasts that he has a ‘comprehensive plan’ to deal with NHS waiting lists. Then he was ridiculed by Neil for basically wanting to have a meeting (his taskforce plan). He also says it’s important to give the NHS more money while also asking for the necessary reform. This is a fair enough assertion but it is a tad hypocritical for politicians to talk about the NHS needing to reform when they refuse to do anything meaningful about social care. The inability to secure social care packages means patients are stuck in hospital even though they are medically fit for discharge, which means new and sick patients cannot be admitted. That’s what a comprehensive plan looks like.
7.55 p.m. – Touchy Rishi?
Steerpike writes…Sunak began this interview as the 10/1 candidate, according to one bookie, and he hasn’t done much to shake that tonight. Neil knows Sunak’s soft spots and has probed them mercilessly, demanding answers on inflation, tax and spending. His victim has looked rattled at times in this half-an-hour interrogation. Still, at least he had the guts to turn up: unlike Liz Truss…
7.53 p.m. – How does the next PM fix the NHS backlog?
Kate Andrews writes… Andrew Neil brings up Spectator data on the NHS backlog: the waiting list in England will rise from an already-record high from 6.6 million to up to 9.2 million by March 2024, if we’re lucky. Asking Sunak what he’ll do to tackle this, he says it’s right to fund the NHS properly, but ’It’s equally important we get the reform we need’.
Sunak insists a ‘task force’ will do for the wait list what a task force did for vaccines. We didn’t get too much details, apart from more promises about efficiencies, though it’s extremely telling that there was no time for Sunak’s family NHS backstory; it’s all policy, and Sunak is trying to list as many as possible.
7.50 p.m. – Neil and Sunak trade barbs over 2019 manifesto pledges
“You broke a manifesto pledge not to raise taxes for extra cash for the NHS – and waiting lists are still set to rise 50%.”@afneil questions Rishi Sunak on NHS waiting times – who replies “things changed” when we were hit by a once in a century pandemic.#C4RaceToBePM pic.twitter.com/LW9lHLZaNa
— Channel 4 (@Channel4) July 29, 2022
James Heale writes… Some of Sunak’s frustrations are coming to the fore here: not just with Neil but also with the constraints he was operating under at the Treasury. After the host raises the issue of the ‘no tax rises’ pledge in the 2019 manifesto, Sunak points out that the same manifesto contained a pledge to reduce the national debt over the next five years. This embodies the wider problem facing both leadership contenders: Boris Johnson’s ‘cakeist’ legacy of trying to please everyone, spending big while keeping taxes down.
7.47 p.m. – Has Rishi been slow to act on soaring energy bills?
Isabel Hardman writes… Boris Johnson took a swipe at Sunak earlier this week for blocking a cut to VAT on energy bills – now as the Prime Minister said drily, it turns out this is easier than he’d been led to believe. Sunak is now having a proper grilling from Neil on his lack of consistency on this policy and on whether he is doing nearly enough to help people struggling with their energy bills. His line is ‘now the situation is worse’ and that he would only have weeks after becoming Prime Minister to put something in place in order to help people. The problem is that there have been warnings about bills going up for a lot longer than this leadership contest.
7.46 p.m. – Tax burden still hurting Sunak
Kate Andrews writes… This debate about who is shouldering the tax burden comes down to these two charts below.
Andrew Neil points out that the tax burden under Rishi Sunak has jumped to a 72-year high; and points out he decided to use a National Insurance levy – which targets workers, including those on lower pay, leaving wealthier pensioners out of it.
Sunak points to the ‘two million lowest paid who move from universal credit into work’ who benefited from his changes to the universal credit taper’ and also to his changes to the NI threshold that also benefited the lowest paid.
“By freezing [tax] thresholds at a time when inflation is rising – you have dragged very low earners into the 20% tax bracket… why is that fair?”@afneil questions Rishi Sunak on whether his proposed tax policy is progressive.#C4RaceToBePM pic.twitter.com/oX09QieN0j
— Channel 4 (@Channel4) July 29, 2022
7.43 p.m. – Tax row follows inflation
James Heale writes… First inflation and now tax rises. Rishi Sunak’s tenure at the Treasury is getting a proper audit as Neil asks about the overall tax burden, which is now at the highest level since the 1940s. Sunak is unapologetic. Asked about the picture of Nigel Lawson which he had in his office, Sunak replied that his policies were aimed at fulfilling Lawson’s vision: building a bigger tax base to increase revenue and lower taxes. His interrogator seems unimpressed.
7.42 p.m. – Does Sunak have the right message?
Katy Balls writes… The interview begins on the economy – the crux of the leadership election. Andrew Neil has challenged Sunak on his economic plan and whether it means the UK is heading towards a recession. Sunak’s response is that his plan will flush inflation out of the system – suggesting Truss (who plans to cut taxes immediately) would make the problem worse. Sunak’s arguments are well prepared and he sounds confident. Yet there’s a question as to whether this should be the main plank of his campaign given he needs to win over the Tory membership. Boris Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings has penned a blog this evening questioning his strategy and suggesting Sunak comes across as too pessimistic when it comes to his message.
7.39 p.m. – Is a recession looming?
Kate Andrews writes… What’s slowing western economies down? Andrew Neil started his interview tonight asking why – when the United States has fallen into recession and the eurozone is on the brink – Rishi Sunak is raising tax. Sunak insists inflation is the problem. ‘Inflation will make everyone poorer’, he said, ‘recession will make everyone poorer too’ Neil rebutted.
This is already an extremely detailed interview, finally digging into the international comparisons that have been hinted at in other debates. Sunak points to higher interest rates in the US as a cautionary tale if one doesn’t get a public finance under control.
The main point Neil gets to is timing: no one is encouraging a spending spree, he said, but is Sunak right to move so quickly on trying to sort the public finances. It’s clear from tonight’s discussion Sunak feels confident about his timeline.
7.35 p.m. – Inflation dominates the early proceedings
James Heale writes… No sign of questions about Claire’s Accessories here: Neil is straight out of the blocks with a rigorous interrogation of Sunak’s stance on inflation. He asks the former Chancellor about forecasts which suggest the UK will have virtually no growth next year. Sunak counters by arguing that inflation is the priority as it ‘makes us all poorer’. While the Tory contender is clearly across all the details, the interjections and tone of both men show why this has become the central argument at the heart of this leadership race.
7.25 p.m. – Is it too late for Rishi?
Katy Balls writes… What counts as a win for Rishi Sunak tonight? The former Chancellor is lagging behind his leadership rival Liz Truss among the membership. So much so that – as I explain in this week’s Spectator cover piece – the Foreign Secretary has declined an invitation to be interviewed by Andrew Neil and plans to do reduced media in the next few weeks. There’s plenty of talk among MPs that even now – before the ballots have gone out – it’s too late for Sunak to turn the dial. It follows that Sunak needs to not only survive this exchange unscathed but come out having changed minds. It’s a tough ask – but he has little choice right now but to try.
7.20 p.m. – A tough hurdle to clear
Gus Carter writes… The Andrew Neil-Jeremy Corbyn interview was one of the defining moments of the 2019 election. The then-Labour leader struggled to deal with Neil’s detailed questioning – while Boris Johnson dodged a grilling altogether. Today’s frontrunner Liz Truss is also avoiding scrutiny. The question is whether Sunak will be able to hold his own. It’s a high-risk strategy, one he may come to regret. This is perhaps the highest moment of danger in the Sunak campaign thus far…
7.10 p.m. – Watch: Rishi Sunak and Charles Moore in conversation
Sunak visited The Spectator’s offices earlier this week to talk to Charles Moore about Thatcherism, inflation and his political influences.
7.00 p.m. – Sunak has a mountain to climb
Michael Simmons writes… Sunak has a lot to do tonight. The latest odds give him just a 13 per cent chance of winning. Truss has been the clear favourite with bookmakers since securing her place in the final two. His main pitch is electability but a recent poll found only three per cent of Tory members are concerned by this.
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