The Tory leadership debate exposed the party’s brutal divisions
Rishi Sunak, the undisputed favorite of Tory MPs, no longer needs to convince his fellow MPs that he deserves the keys to No 10. Since the start of the toxic race to replace Boris Johnson, MPs have feared that the crisis of the cost of living condemns the party, after 12 years in power, have flocked to the former chancellor in the hope that he will prove to be the safe choice. But the shrewd Brexiteer’s next battle is by far the toughest: persuading Tory members that he is in fact still a Tory.
Sunak used his time in the Treasury to push Britain’s tax burden to a 70-year high. He increased National Insurance to pay NHS backlogs, dragged 2.5million people into higher tax rates and pledged to raise corporation tax from 19% to 25%. These actions are anathema to the more than 150,000 rank-and-file Tories who will decide Britain’s next prime minister.
With Boris Johnson’s allies branding the former occupant of No 11 a ‘snake’ and all his rivals promising immediate tax cuts, Sunak is cornered and cannot risk further ‘blue on blue’ attacks by denying his balance sheet or by shifting blame.
In the ITV Tory leadership debate tonight, however, he showed he could still continue on the path to victory. He attacked Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt – one of whom is almost certain to join him in the final round – for ‘fantasy economics’ over their plans to cut taxes and borrow more, saying ‘even Jeremy Corbyn isn’t didn’t go that far.” by “putting our bills on a credit card”.
“If we are not for sound money, what good is the Conservative Party? This is the most conservative of conservative values,” he stressed, hoping the conservative stalwarts will hear him.
If Sunak manages to align his tax hikes with traditional conservative fiscal responsibility – “this something-for-nothing economy isn’t conservative, it’s socialism” – during a summer of jostling, he may have a chance to clear the final hurdle. But tonight also showed that other prospects will fight back, and hard. Truss, the Foreign Secretary, cut a nervous figure amid claims that her previous support for Remain is hurting her campaign.
But she made it clear she opposed the NI tax hike during cabinet debates, accusing the former chancellor of stifling growth. Mordaunt has also been ruthless in his attacks on Sunak, saying, “If he has this big plan for growth, why haven’t we seen it in his last two years in Treasury?”
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The two runners-up contenders also snapped photos of Sunak’s carefully managed image, with Truss admitting that she “may not be the most adept presenter on this stage…but when I say I’m gonna do something, I’m doing it” and Mordaunt pointedly tells her the failed launch video didn’t feature her, but focused on party and country.
What Sunak lacks is more credibility on the right. But if reports are to be believed, insurgent Kemi Badenoch — the lesser-known candidate who has shown a willingness to engage in the culture wars — could still endorse her if, as expected, she is defeated.
And, aside from a relatively soft challenge over Covid loan fraud, Badenoch, and indeed outsider Tom Tugendhat, have been lenient with Sunak, suggesting they could lend him support, and in turn isolate his rivals. , in the remaining stages of the restless contest.
Considering Sunak visibly squirmed asking Truss what she “regrets the most,” being a Liberal Democrat as a student or a Remainer in 2016, he may not have the stomach for the fight to come. The contest is still wide open at this point, with tonight’s debate producing no clear winner.
Tomorrow Tory MPs will vote in the third round to eliminate another candidate, then again on Tuesday, after which just three will remain in the race.
The furious exchanges – a Labor source described the debate as “a generous gift” for Keir Starmer – made one thing clear: whoever wins will inherit a fearful party deeply divided over the road ahead.