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Liz Truss is gaining momentum in the Tory leadership race

The Defence Secretary has endorsed Truss's campaign in a major coup – but Rishi Sunak could fight back this weekend as he faces Andrew Neil.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The Tory leadership contest stepped up a gear last night when Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss clashed in the first party hustings in Leeds.

The toughest moment for Sunak came when he was asked by a Conservative activist why he “stabbed Boris Johnson in the back”. Sunak said he had “no choice” but to resign as chancellor because there was “a significant difference of opinion” over economic policy, but the question demonstrated the sticking power of the narrative that he betrayed the outgoing PM.

The Foreign Secretary, who is winning over the Tory faithful with pledges of tax cuts, signalled that any cost-of-living bailout would not be paid for with a further windfall tax on energy companies, despite Shell announcing record profits of £9.4bn yesterday. She said the levies “send the wrong message to the world” about the UK.

Truss also reminded the audience that she would be a formidable opponent for Keir Starmer, telling the West Yorkshire crowd she regarded the Labour leader as a “patronising, plastic patriot” and that the Tories must channel “the spirit of Don Revie” – the football manager whose motto was “you get nowt for coming second” – to win the next election. Revie transformed Leeds United into a trophy-winning First Division team, but he could be an inauspicious reference point for the would-be PM. His players were notorious for ugly, cynical football and as the England boss he was a failure.

[See also: Will Liz Truss’s tax cuts work?]

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Truss’s bid for Downing Street is gathering momentum, however, and the endorsement of the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace – who was the bookies’ favourite to replace Boris Johnson until he ruled himself out of the race – is a coup for her team. 

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The top job may be out of reach for Sunak if he fails to make an impact this weekend (ballot papers are due to reach Tory members on Monday). The former chancellor will be interviewed by the veteran broadcaster Andrew Neil at 7.30pm tonight on Channel 4.

The policy bidding war continues apace. Sunak revealed last night he would double the number of deportations of foreign criminals – a policy Truss’s team has dismissed as unworkable – and back new grammar schools.

Starmer is braced for another day of difficult headlines about the Labour Party’s divisions over strike action. Sam Tarry prepares for another round of broadcast interviews this morning. He was sacked as shadow transport minister yesterday for giving unauthorised media interviews in which he advocated for inflation-level pay rises – not an official Labour policy – but many in the party believe it was because he joined a rail strike picket line outside Euston station in central London.

Tarry was also at the picket line this morning with members of the Communication Workers’ Union, who are staging a walkout over pay at the telecoms giant BT.

He suggested other Labour MPs could join striking workers today, saying: “I think it’s a fundamental mistake to ban Labour MPs from being on picket lines. It shouldn’t happen and has caused a complete car crash of a week when we should have been talking about what we’re going to do to raise wages for the British people.”

As conference season looms, left-wing activists are reportedly plotting to embarrass Starmer over the row and the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, has already warned Starmer to be “careful” not to let Labour be seen as “a party that undermines working people fighting to protect their incomes in a cost-of-living crisis”.

[See also: What Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are getting wrong about Brexit]