Truss and Sunak's first head-to-head – as it happened

26 July 2022

5:30 AM

26 July 2022

5:30 AM

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss took part in their first head-to-head since they were confirmed as the final two candidates in the Tory leadership race, clashing on economic policy, China, clothes and their backgrounds. Refresh this page for further developments after the BBC live debate:

10.20 p.m. – Sunak narrowly beats Truss in post-debate poll, but Tories still prefer Truss

Katy Balls writes… Who won? Team Truss are clearly unhappy with how many times Sunak interrupted the foreign secretary. The former chancellor’s tactics have met a mixed reception: some on the BBC focus group suggested they went too far and Truss supporter Therese Coffey implied it amounted to mansplaining. Yet the polling paints a happier picture for Truss. A snap Opinium poll puts Sunak ahead by one point – at 39 per cent to Truss on 38 per cent. Meanwhile, among Tory voters, Truss led with 47 per cent of the vote compared to Sunak on 38 per cent. That would imply this isn’t the game changing performance Sunak needed to win over the membership. There is still, however, a possibility that the points he raised, such as those on interest rates, could cause Truss bother in the days and weeks to come.

Conservative voters thought Truss did better (47% vs 38% for Sunak).
Labour voters thought Sunak did better (41% vs 30% for Truss).

— Opinium (@OpiniumResearch) July 25, 2022

10.13 p.m. – Truss’s potent new attack line

Kate Andrews writes… Tonight’s economic debate was especially heated, as Truss directly accused Sunak of ushering in tax hikes that would tip the UK economy into recession. But she struggled on the follow-ups: having called for tighter monetary policy on multiple occasions, is she ready to defend higher interest (and mortgage) rates? When she cites the US economy as one to emulate, does she want to see the Bank of England move much faster on interest rates like the Federal Reserve? The UK may be an outlier in the G7 for raising taxes, but is she really claiming that other countries aren’t teetering on recession? Growing evidence suggests that both the US and the Eurozone may have already tipped into one.

But Truss came up with a new line of defence – and attack – tonight that really resonated: the importance of keeping one’s word. She pointed out twice that the Tory manifesto in 2019 promised not to touch National Insurance, and that alone justified reversing the tax hike. It’s a powerful argument: it acknowledges the difficult economic circumstances (avoiding ‘fairytale’ accusations) while still making a compelling case for tax cuts, based on the fundamental principle of trust. It’s not an economic theory or a costed pledge; it’s just a simple point about keeping one’s word. And it’s very hard to rebut.

10.00 p.m. – Has Sunak failed to turn it round?

Fraser Nelson writes… I wanted Sunak to do well tonight and close the gap with Truss, but I’m not sure that he will have done so. He spoke so very quickly, interrupted lots and came across a bit Scrappy-Doo. She was quite chilled, and didn’t really respond to his attacks. I started off seeing this as a weakness on her part, as he went too far and left himself exposed. But her not responding may well be seen by undecided Tories as her rising above it. She got the biggest applause for saying she was not the slickest presenter and a straight-talker who likes to keep promises, especially on tax. This may be the theme for the rest of her campaign..

9.59 p.m. – A surreal end

Kate Andrews writes… The closing stages descended into a strange sort of marriage counselling, with Sunak and Truss asked to tell the other what skill they should work on, if each were to become Prime Minister. Truss called on Sunak to take more risks. Sunak refused to say a bad word (in this question) about Truss, dishing out praise instead. Both said they’d like to work in each other’s teams. No specific job offers yet….

What rating would Tory leadership candidates give Boris Johnson as prime minister?

7/10, says Liz Truss

10/10 for “delivering a solution to Brexit”, says Rishi Sunak#BBCOurNextPM

— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) July 25, 2022

9.55 p.m. – Some applause finally arrives

Freddy Gray writes… Finally a loud clap – the first one for Sunak. It’s telling that the applause comes after he says ‘enough was enough’ vis Boris Johnson but he also praised the outgoing PM. He stresses his ‘consistency’ on principles: another clear dig at Truss. No clap for Truss’s reply as to why she stuck with Johnson. Liz got a big clap too when she said she wasn’t the best at presentation but was good at getting stuck in etc.

9.54 p.m. – Truss’s Winchester reference fails to land

Katy Balls writes… Truss brought up Sunak’s education at a top private school, he responded with a passionate defence of his parents for making the sacrifices to get him there. It received one of the biggest rounds of applause of the evening. It’s a reminder that this type of criticism is hard to land.

9.50 p.m. – An uncomfortable night for Truss

Kate Andrews writes… Liz Truss has missed an opportunity tonight to highlight one of her best traits: a (usually) consistent supporter of individualism and personal success. When asked if she condemned Nadine Dorries’s comments about Sunak’s expensive shoes and suits, Truss refused to outright reject the idea that personal wealth was something to frowned upon. Dorries is, of course, one of Boris Johnson’s biggest allies, and Truss has been the least critical of the Prime Minister in this race, presumably hoping to pull in Johnson loyalist votes from the membership. But her comments tonight simply did not gel with the Truss brand. You could tell she didn’t feel quite right playing into wealth politics either. It ended with a (light) round of applause for Sunak in the end, as he was the one who defended his story and aspiration more generally.

9.48 p.m. – The tone coarsens

Isabel Hardman writes… This really is an extremely teenage debate. Truss and Sunak have just had a discussion about why they said the things they did in previous arguments, largely resorting to personal stories to try to make the other person feel guilty. Truss was asked why she had attacked Sunak for going to Winchester College, and she returns to her own back story of going to a comprehensive where other children were let down. All she was trying to say, she argues, is that she wanted other people to have the opportunities that Sunak did. Sunak defends his parents for saving up money to pay for his education. The funny thing is that you’d expect to hear both of these ripostes from Conservatives to Labour critics, not to one another.

9.40 p.m. – Fashion farce

Steerpike writes… A bizarre segment in which Sophie Raworth and Chris Mason demand to know about Liz Truss’s fashion choices. It follows an earlier tweet by kamikaze Truss backer Nadine Dorries in which she contrasted Sunak’s sartorial choices with the foreign secretary’s £5 earrings. Truss gets nods of approval when she asks if the pair can focus on proper political issues rather than wardrobe choices.

9.39 p.m. – Pins dropping in Stoke-on-Trent

Freddy Gray writes… Has the audience been told not to applaud? Or is their silence an ominous statement about how Red Wall voters who voted for the Tories in 2019 feel about these two contenders? It’s starting to feel a bit peculiar that, as the candidates deliver what are meant to be applause lines, we hear nothing.

A reminder of the latest polling numbers…

9.37 p.m. – Not much of a gap between the two on foreign policy

James Forsyth writes… For all the rhetoric, it is clear that on foreign policy there isn’t much difference between Truss and Sunak. Both want to carry on current UK policy towards Ukraine, but neither are prepared to see Britain get directly involved in the conflict. On China, both want to take a tougher line.

9.34 p.m. – It’s not calming down as the candidates move onto foreign policy  

Isabel Hardman writes… The level of passive aggression in this foreign policy section is more beautiful than the scene in The Importance of Being Earnest where Gwendolen and Cecily are having afternoon tea. Sunak has just said ‘Liz has been on a journey’ on China, the political equivalent of Cecily dumping sugar in the tea that her companion specifically said she didn’t want. He reminds Truss that she recently said British and Chinese relations are entering a ‘Golden Era’. Truss rolls her eyes and remarks that this must have been ten years ago. Someone bring round the cucumber sandwiches.

9.30 p.m. – Truss could be sharper on the attack, as Rishi is vulnerable

Fraser Nelson writes… Well, that escalated quickly. An opening session on inflation, where Sunak boasted about his debt-financed giveaways – £1,200 for the most vulnerable, he says. And of course, he regards this deficit-funded splurge as very sensible: as opposed to Truss’s deficit-financed tax cuts, which Sunak attacked as not ‘responsible’ or ‘conservative’ and even ‘not moral’. Truss said her tax cut cuts – green levies, reversing Sunak’s National Insurance rise – would be financed by ‘Brexit opportunities’ apparently (remember them?).

Rishi Sunak claims Liz Truss’s economic plan will lead to 7% interest rates and “tip millions of people into misery”

“I don’t believe this negative declinist language,” says Liz Truss#BBCOurNextPM

— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) July 25, 2022

Sunak went after her as hard as he could. Speaking like a podcast on 1.5x speed, he announced that Truss’s tax cuts were going on ‘the country’s credit card.’ But what is financing his giveaways? I’m about to get a £400 cost-of-living bung from him: why? Who’s paying for that, if not ‘our children,’ as he put it? ‘If we’re not for sound money, what is the point of the Conservative party?’ he asked. Quite: so why is he splurging like this? ‘We need to get a grip of inflation,’ continued Sunak – but he didn’t say how he’d do it.

9.27 p.m. – Sunak’s NHS honesty

Kate Andrews writes… Sunak says the thing UK politicians aren’t supposed to say out loud – and how refreshing it was. In response to the accusation that no other G7 countries are raising taxes right now, Sunak responded that it was to put more money into the NHS, which remains a top priority for the British public. ‘Unlike other G7 countries,’ he said, ‘we fund the NHS through taxation.’ It’s a reminder that the UK is an outlier in how its health system is structured, and more money for healthcare means higher taxes. It feeds into his narrative about tough choices, but it also serves as a reminder that refusal to address the sustainability of the health service for decades is proving increasingly costly.

Tax burden

9.25 p.m. – Sunak almost too eager

Katy Balls writes… There is a lot riding on Rishi Sunak’s performance this evening – he needs to step his campaign up a gear. However, he is at risk of appearing too eager to speak – interrupting Truss to the point she is finding it hard to get a word in edgeways.

9.21 p.m. – This is a battle of ideas

Kate Andrews writes… What a start to tonight’s BBC leadership debate: the first question put to both candidates – whether ‘more help’ would be on the way to help with the cost-of-living crunch – almost immediately descended into the big divide between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss: tax cuts. It’s the punchiest debate they’ve had yet. Sunak is going very hard on how tax cuts could lead to higher interest – and mortgage – rates, which Truss is trying to label ‘Project Fear.’ Sunak is doubling down on fiscal responsibility – ‘should we pay that bill ourselves, or do we put it on the country’s credit card and pass the tab to our children and our grandchildren’ – while Truss is promising to ‘challenge the orthodoxy’.

Is now the right time to cut taxes?

Rishi Sunak says it’s not “responsible” to put debt on “the country’s credit card”, but Liz Truss says “no other country” is raising taxes and she would begin paying down debt in “three years’ time”#BBCOurNextPM

— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) July 25, 2022

Truss is struggling to respond to worries about interest rates; Sunak is being accused of bringing on a recession. We’re having a detailed battle of ideas. Finally.

9.19 p.m. – The Brexit wars are back

Katy Balls writes… We’ve just had the first mention of Project Fear. When Rishi Sunak put to Liz Truss that countries such as the US that have borrowed more have higher interest rates, she accused the former chancellor of pedalling Project Fear – a hark back to the days of the EU referendum. Sunak hit back by pointing out that Truss was the only one of the two of them pedalling Project Fear during that period as she was on the side of Remain, when he campaigned for Leave. While both look rattled, the exchange was more uncomfortable for Truss.

Rishi Sunak says US mortgage rates are “almost 50% higher” than the UK “because they’re borrowing so much”

“This is scaremongering, this is project fear,” Liz Truss says

“Only one of us was on the side of Remain,” Sunak replies#BBCOurNextPM

— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) July 25, 2022

Freddy Gray writes… Sunak’s best moment as he bites back at Liz accusing him of Project Fear, reminding Liz that she was part of that project pre-Brexit. But he needs to stop saying ‘not my words’ … this will become a meme!

9.18 p.m. – Rishi looks fired up

Isabel Hardman writes… Sunak is much more energised than Truss but not necessarily in a good way. He is so much on the offensive that he nearly ate Faisal Islam alive when the BBC’s economics editor asked him a question. Then he had a go at Truss for campaigning for Remain. Icily, she replied: ‘Maybe I’ve learned from that.’

9.16 p.m. – Truss exceeding expectations

Freddy Gray writes… Rather clever of Truss to portray herself as a weak debater, neatly lowering expectations. But she looks quite focused tonight – certainly more than she did in the last two debates – and sounded more direct and purposeful on fuel bills than Sunak. And she is rather dominating these early exchanges on the economy. Also, worth noting the amazing Accidental Partridge from Sunak there: ‘Not my words …’

9.14 p.m. – Sunak attacks Trussonomics

James Forsyth writes… Sunak going hard on Patrick Minford, the economist that Liz Truss cited on Today last week, talking about interest rates going up to 7 per cent. He told The Times they would need to go between 5 and 7 per cent, to balance out the fiscal loosening that Liz Truss is proposing.

9.12 p.m. – Truss offers more on specifics

Katy Balls writes… The first question is on energy bills and cost of living. When pressed on what help they would provide if prime minister, Sunak spoke more broadly and talked of long term solutions such as insulating homes and increasing UK energy supply. On short-term solutions he would not go into specifics. This meant that when Truss responded – pointing to her plan to reverse the NI hike and suspend the green levy – she sounded more definite in her plans than her opponent.

9.11 p.m. – Is Liz the heir to Thatcher?

Steerpike writes… Clad in royal blue, there’s a touch of Mrs T about Liz Truss this evening. It’s a stark contrast to Rishi Sunak in his now-familiar tieless expensive suit. Unfortunately the exchange where Truss railed against the recessions and economic misery of the 1980s does beg the question as to which party was in power at the time. More serious is the divide here over Thatcher’s legacy. Should the government focus on ‘sound money’ and getting inflation down? Or should it taxes and try to grow the economy? Whoever wins that argument will likely be the next PM and follow Maggie into No. 10.

9.10 p.m. – It’s getting nasty

Isabel Hardman writes… We are minutes into this debate and it is already getting shirty. Rishi Sunak has accused Liz Truss of offering an argument about tax cuts that is ‘simply not true’. Truss has hit back with her own personal experience of growing up in Paisley and Leeds, saying she saw what it was like for people who had lost their jobs – a deliberate contrast with the privileged upbringing of the former chancellor. His rejoinder is that the main problem of those years was inflation. They are talking over one another and pulling exasperated faces that they’ve presumably learned from teenagers while shopping in Claire’s Accessories.

9.00 p.m. – Will it get nasty?

James Forsyth writes… Unlike the previous debates, this is a head-to-head. Oddly, this might make it a more civil affair. The candidates won’t have to get into a scrap to get noticed. But there are clear differences between the pair on economics. Yet, the Tories shouldn’t be worried of a debate about ideas. It is when it gets personal that it becomes more difficult to put the party back together again afterwards.

8.35 p.m. – Sunak has it all to do

8.30 p.m. – Truss needs to avoid slip-ups

Katy Balls writes… The first leadership head-to-head gets underway on BBC One in half an hour. It’s high stakes for both candidates. Rishi Sunak is looking for a breakthrough performance that helps him to get momentum behind his campaign and close the gap with Liz Truss. Meanwhile Truss as the frontrunner needs to avoid any slip-ups that will set her back. Supporters of Truss privately admit that debates have the potential to be difficult for her, given Sunak is a more accomplished media performer. However, the format of the debate could be uncomfortable for both of them. Tory swing voters will be in the audience to cast their opinions on each of them – that means even if they perform well in answers, a scathing comment from the public could become the defining moment.

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