The verdict: the second Tory leadership debate

18 July 2022

5:28 AM

18 July 2022

5:28 AM

‘If you’re still watching this debate, well done,’ said Mordaunt, bizarrely, in her closing statement. ‘I wish tonight had been less about us and more about you.’ She obviously scripted that comment before she had any idea how the evening was going to pan out and her own contributions were certainly forgettable. But the others made for an interesting night.

Tom Tugendhat quite rightly said the whole evening’s discussion – tax, defence etc. – was about the country. ‘We need to restore confidence in our government and in ourselves,’ he said. I’m not sure Britain needs its self-confidence restored: it’s the Tories who are having a collective breakdown. Rishi Sunak had the same gameshow-host polish that he rather eerily exhibited all the way through; you almost expected him to give an Anne Robinson-style wink to the camera at the end. But punters love a good host: the Opinium poll sayz Sunak won, with 24 per cent thinking he did best, Tugendhat on 19 per cent, Mordaunt 17 per cent, Liz Truss on 15 per cent and Kemi on 12 per cent.

‘I might not be the slickest presenter on this stage,’ she Liz Truss at one stage – perhaps a nod to her underwhelming delivery in the Ch4 debate on Friday. But she was better tonight and made the best points. Why say that she’s not great at such debates? If she were to get to the final two, she’d have to do weeks of them – let alone the TV debates needed in a general election.

Badenoch didn’t look once at her notes. ‘I’m the candidate for the future,’ she said – returning to her maiden speech theme about having chosen Britain for values she discerned and admired from Nigeria. Nice stuff, and she performed very well overall – she didn’t look remotely out of place on that stage. The ConservativeHome poll suggests that if she got into the final two, she’d easily beat any opponent (below). Which, I suspect, is why MPs will not let her get to the final two.

The main argument was Truss vs Sunak – and quite an argument it was. Truss was quite right to say it’s time to ask how the Bank of England’s independent set-up is working out, given that they’ve missed their inflation target time and time again.

Sunak said he’s happy with the Bank of England’s track record: with inflation heading towards 11 per cent I’m not quite sure why. Inflation has been, on average, at 2 per cent since 1997, he said. If he looks at the below chart and thinks it’s all working out wonderfully then he is, to put it politely, in the minority.

Truss also had a good point when she asked that, if Sunak has got such a great plan for growth ‘how come we haven’t see it in his two and a half years at the Treasury?’. This is Sunak’s weak point: he’s not offering any change. And let’s remember: the plan that he’s proposing to stick with has driven Britain into zero growth: the worst G20 performance aside from Russia. As Truss said in the Channel 4 debate, this should not be allowed to happen.

Sunak accused Truss of left-wing ideas in backing deficit-financed tax cuts: ‘if we’re not for sound money, what is the point in the Conservative party?’ Fine words, but as Sunak will know the below graph – plus the above inflation graph – doesn’t exactly scream ‘sound money’.

Sunak managed to shrug off these attacks tonight. He’s lucky that Truss didn’t call him out on sound money and he’s lucky that Badenoch couldn’t put a figure on the Covid fraud his Treasury missed (which one of Sunak’s ministers – Lord Agnew – resigned over, who is now on Team Kemi). Even if the fraud is one-third down from its peak, as he claims, it’s still an absolute scandal. But Sunak knows this terrain better than anyone – so even when he’s wrong, he sounds right.

Truss is right on the fundamentals though. Sunak broke a manifesto pledge and hiked taxes to a 74-year high, thereby killing the recovery with no serious plans to lighten this intolerable load. Instead he wants to up corporation tax from 19 per cent to 25 per cent. ‘Raising taxes at this moment will choke off economic growth and will prevent us getting the revenue we need to pay off the debt,’ said Truss. Quite. As chancellor, Sunak tended to blame a spendthrift No. 10. If he now says that he could do no better as PM himself, then he will remain very vulnerable.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments