It was hardly a closely guarded secret that there was no love lost between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Allies of the two former cabinet colleagues now vying to be prime minister have spent the day taking potshots at their rival’s dress sense, patriotism and integrity, not to mention their plans for tax and public spending.
Tonight’s BBC debate – in which, despite an unprecedented labour shortage, the NHS was barely mentioned – did not provide a game-changing moment and Sunak remains the underdog, hamstrung by his decision as chancellor to raise taxes.
Truss, the Foreign Secretary and supposedly the preferred candidate of Boris Johnson, showed her front-bench experience and seemed largely unfazed by Sunak. She riposted “maybe I’ve learnt from that” when Sunak referenced her past support for Remain and stood by her plan to cut taxes by £30bn when the former chancellor accused her of economic recklessness.
While Sunak came out swinging, determined to expose Truss’s plans as creating a heavy burden of debt for future generations, he struggled to break through, and at times looked desperate. His keenness could play into Truss’s hands. Her outriders, who have already berated Sunak for his love of expensive attire, now charge him with “mansplaining”.
Truss also revealed herself to be the true heir to Johnson as she followed his “never apologise, never explain” strategy and refused to disown personal attacks on Sunak by her allies.
The multimillionaire Sunak, who attended the private school Winchester College, tried to portray himself as the model of British social mobility, while Truss countered by emphasising that she went to comprehensive school.
The Labour Party is very happy with the debate, which was scattered throughout with ferocious attacks, thinking it made the Tories look more divided than ever. But the debate ended on a more collegiate note, with Truss – the clear front-runner at this stage – offering Sunak a job in her government. This might have been merely a power play, but Tory members do look set to opt for Truss, the tax-cutter with the most experience at the heart of government. Sunak looked lost by comparison.