Tory leadership debate: rivals discuss tax, energy, NHS, the green economy and trust in first televised head-to-head – as it happened | Politics

Snap verdict

Even though this was a one-party TV debate, the spin room will still be all about people who backed a particular candidate saying their particular candidate did best, but I’ll bring you some reaction to the debate shortly.

My quick tuppence is that Rishi Sunak didn’t do anything to torpedo his position as current front-runner among MPs, even if he may not have put in a performance that would wow the public. Tugendhat was clearly the most likeable candidate to the audience in the studio, but isn’t really credibly likely to get into the last two, which leaves Badenoch, Truss and Mordaunt.

I don’t think any of the three of them had a particular stellar evening. I didn’t feel that Mordaunt shone, Truss maybe had her best moments when she was toe-to-toe with Sunak over tax and borrowing (even if you think he is more fiscally credible), and Badenoch was quite good at bringing things back to a personal level, but her platform of “speaking the truth” is still quite light on actual policies.

Here’s some interesting snap polling from Opinium, showing good news for Tugendhat – as far as the public is concerned at any rate.


Tonight we asked over 1000 normal voters to watch the debate and we have just asked them who they thought performed best.

Tugendhat 36%
Sunak 25%
Mordaunt 12%
Badenoch 12%
Truss 6%

— Opinium (@OpiniumResearch) July 15, 2022

Opinium also has some polling on how people of different political persuasions felt the contest went, which is broadly similar.

Among Tory 2019 voters it was a neck and neck between Tugendhat and Sunak.

However, among Conservative swing voters (who will decide whether the Tories hold their majority at the next election) the results were:
Tugendhat 33%
Sunak 28%
Mordaunt 14%
Badenoch 12%
Truss 6%

— Opinium (@OpiniumResearch) July 15, 2022

Updated at 16.24 EDT

Key events:

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Summary of the day

  • The five remaining Conservative candidates to be the next UK prime minister took part in a TV debate on Channel 4 on Friday night. Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Tom Tugendhat featured in a programme hosted by Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
  • In an often difficult night for all the candidates, Sunak openly ridiculed Truss’s tax plans. Condemning what he called a wider “unfunded spree of borrowing and more debt” among his competitors, he condemned the Truss’s proposal to put off repayments of public debt built up due to Covid. “There is no such thing as Covid debt,” a visibly irritated Sunak told the foreign secretary. “Debt is debt. And the answer to too much borrowing can’t be yet more borrowing. It’s as simple as that.”
  • Mordaunt and Badenoch clash with visible enmity about the former’s views on trans rights. Mordaunt, meanwhile, asked about negative briefings about her from some of the other camps, refused to say she trusted the other candidates.
  • A long section on trust saw none of the five willing say whether the prime minister they hope to replace, Boris Johnson, was honest. “Sometimes,” said Badenoch, while Mordaunt talked about “really severe issues”, and Truss spoke of “mistakes”. Tugendhat won applause by saying, simply: “No.”
  • Despite pressure from some Tory grandees including former Brexit minister David Frost to unite behind a single candidate representing the right of the party, Badenoch’s team said “She has no intention of stepping down and is in it to win.”
  • Badenoch and Truss have declined to answer questions put to them by the LGBT+ Conservatives group by their deadline of 1pm today. The group gave each of the leadership contenders a three-question questionnaire. Tugendhat, Sunak and Mordaunt managed to answer on time, although the group has since reached out to Badenoch and Truss to encourage them to submit their answers.
  • Boris Johnson is planning to stage parliamentary interventions on Ukraine, Brexit and levelling up, with allies of the outgoing prime minister hinting that those are the areas of his legacy he believes to be most under threat from his potential successor.
  • Channel 4 has said an investigation into allegations made by the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, that a reality TV show she appeared on used paid actors has found no evidence of fakery. The broadcaster asked the producers of the 2010 reality show Tower Block of Commons, in which Dorries was one of a number of MPs who went to live in deprived communities, to investigate the claims she made to the culture select committee in May.
  • The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, visited a section of the Berlin Wall earlier today while on a trip to the German capital to meet politicians and business leaders. Starmer was pictured by the landmark, erected in 1961 by the communist authorities to separate East and West Berlin.

That is it from me, Martin Belam, for tonight. Thank you to my colleague Tom Ambrose for his live blogging earlier today. Tom will be back with you tomorrow, and I will be here on Sunday. Do join us. In the meantime, I suspect you might also enjoy John Crace’s sketch on today’s debates and hustings.

On the climate crisis issue, of the five candidates tonight, Kemi Badenoch remained the only candidate who would not commit to the UK’s current net zero pledge. She said:

The pledge was made in 2018 for 2050, none of us are going to be here as politicians in 2050, it’s very easy to set a target you are not going to be responsible and accountable for when the time comes. The important thing is to make sure that we do this in a sustainable way. Many of the things we are doing could economically damage our country.

My colleague Helena Horton wrote earlier today that, after initial alarm from green Conservatives about how little the environment was featuring in the leadership contest discussion, Sunak, Mordaunt, Truss and Tugendhat had all committed to 2050.

Michael Gove is doubling down on his support of Kemi Badenoch after tonight’s debate. He says “she has the right stuff”.

Kemi is winning among Newsnight jury – she has the right stuff

— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) July 15, 2022

This is what Sam Coates, the deputy political editor as Sky News, had to say in his live analysis earlier when the debate had concluded. He suggested it was a strong performance from Rishi Sunak, and a tough night for Liz Truss:

Tonight was dominated by two things, the issue of trust and the economy. And what was really striking was the ability of Rishi Sunak to drag that debate about the economy onto his own terms.

He grilled both Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss about their tax plans. Whether the nation could afford them. Whether or not they might increase inflation.

He was the one framing the argument and putting the others under pressure, even though arguably his plan, which is not so much help now as those two, is a harder sell on the country.

He went on to say about the current foreign secretary:

Tonight also mattered for Liz Truss. Bits of her pitch were clearly quite tough. She is essentially standing by her decision not to resign from Boris Johnson’s government, and pledging her loyalty to him even now, but it didn’t look like it went down particularly well with the audience.

I do sometimes subscribe to the view that if your candidate has done or said something daft, it is best to lean into it on social media on the basis that “any publicity is good publicity” and “people will be talking about us rather than someone else.”

So while confessing I may be about to fall into that trap, there appears to be a lot of confusion on social media about just quite what Penny Mordaunt meant by this statement – “The top 180 innovations that we have had. How many are used in the NHS. None” – or why her social media team would then make it into a graphic.

Photograph: Twitter

As you can probably imagine, the quote tweets of it have been a sight to behold, not least a procession of NHS staff pointing some pretty basic “innovations” they use like the wheel and electricity, or the good old fall-back to a Monty Python reference: “Aside from the internet, penicillin, recombinant antibodies, MRI scanners, CAT scans, lateral flow tests … what inventions has the NHS ever used?”

Update: the relevant tweet was later deleted, so a screenshot has been added.

Updated at 18.36 EDT

Harry Lambert offers this analysis of tonight over at the New Statesman:

Liz Truss has the backing of 64 MPs but no wavering MP can be encouraged to join her camp after tonight’s showing. That was no surprise – I suggested Truss would perform poorly tonight, as anyone else who has watched the foreign secretary try to navigate questions on air before would probably have done, and I think the Tory right would be wise to drop her and swing behind Kemi Badenoch (who is fourth among MPs, with the backing of 49). Badenoch was the calmer and more assured performer this evening. But I do not expect the Tory right to align, and that will keep Mordaunt on the path to a run-off with Sunak.

Read more here: New Statesman – Who won the first Tory leadership TV debate?

A couple of tomorrow’s front pages are out, and you can see exactly where some people have hitched their wagons. For the Mail, it is news of a “Liz tax boost for families” as they tout a plan from the Truss camp for “a radical overhaul of the tax system.”

“She wants to ensure parents are not penalised for time out of work to look after family members,” the paper says, adding that “couples with young children or caring responsibilities.”

It also refers to her as Miss Truss on the front page.

The Telegraph, meanwhile, leads with Penny Mordaunt saying that she is “up to the job”.

You can also get “free” sun lotion with the Daily Mail tomorrow, though it comes at a cost of £3.95 P&P and not linking the extreme heat the country is facing with the climate crisis.

John CraceJohn Crace

John Crace has delivered his sketch of both tonight’s debate and the earlier online hustings:

Hard to believe but it’s only just over a week since the latest Tory psychodrama began. It feels longer. So much longer. Time bends and stalls when you’re in the parallel universe of a Liz Truss speech. She leaves audiences begging for a lethal injection. The other leadership contenders are little better, registering mostly as absences on the space-time continuum. Negative energy.

But we are where we are and we have moved on to the first of the televised debates, a weird gameshow where the only audience that counts are the 360 or so Tory MPs who may or may not be watching. The rest of us are merely voyeurs, having no say in which two clowns will still be standing by next Wednesday evening. This is apparently how the UK likes to choose its prime minister these days. Very on brand for a country that has become a laughing stock.

First, though, there was a warm-up Zoom hustings on the Conservative Home website. Think a weekly meeting of junior sales reps. Only infinitely more boring. It’s almost as if no one really wants the job. Which would actually suit the rest of us.

The only highlights were the flatlining Truss forgetting to unmute herself – she’s at her most articulate when you can’t hear her – and Ready4Rish! suggesting that his biggest fault is his perfectionism. I’d say a far greater fault was being in charge of an economy that is predicted to have the second lowest growth in the G20. If he was a real perfectionist he’d have made sure we were bottom. The other three – Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch – said nothing memorable at all. Which meant they easily came out on top.

Read more here: John Crace – The Tory leadership debate: desperate as a sales pitch, worse as entertainment

Rishi Sunak has gone for not just posting a video clip of his closing statement …

… but also a behind-the-scenes montage as well.

Kemi Badenoch has posted slides of her closing speech. It is possible to interpret that as an indication of the difference between the campaign money they have behind them.

Interestingly, Liz Truss and her team have opted to go with a video clip of the segment where she talked about transgender rights, rather than her closing statement. Truss said:

When I started in the Women and Equalities job, there was a plan to move forward on self-ID. I believe in women’s rights. I also believe that transgender people should be treated with respect.

So what I did is I changed the outcome of that work, so that we were able to make the process simpler and kinder, but not move ahead with self-ID.

Which I think is the right position, because I think people understand that women’s faces domestic violence shelters need to be protected for women, but at the same time, everybody is should be free to live their lives as they want and be treated with respect. So that is the balance I sought to achieve.

Truss did get cut off for exceeding her 45 seconds in her final speech, which may have made it a less appealing clip to use.

Over on social media, it has not gone unnoticed that Liz Truss was very much cosplaying as Margaret Thatcher tonight, even down to a specific outfit Thatcher wore in a 1979 election broadcast.

The wizard from the Harry Potter world, Dumbledore, has also been trending on Twitter, because people have spotted that Tom Tugendhat’s line “It’s easy to stand up to your enemies – it’s sometimes harder to stand up to your friends” sounds like a line from the Philosopher’s Stone where the grand old wizard says “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Elsewhere, old man yells at cloud.

In the Leadership debate there were no questions about how they would reform government and slim down a top heavy expensive No 10. They need to show the way by delivering more with less.

— John Redwood (@johnredwood) July 15, 2022

Full report: Tory leadership race explodes into acrimony during TV debate

Peter WalkerPeter Walker

Here is Peter Walker’s report on tonight:

The Conservative leadership race has exploded into acrimony and recrimination after the first televised debate saw open arguments over tax and identity politics with also none of the five candidates willing to say Boris Johnson is honest.

Coming hours after Liz Truss sought to reinvigorate her faltering campaign with a sudden announcement of new tax cuts costing more than £20bn a year, Rishi Sunak the ex-chancellor, openly ridiculed his former colleague’s plans during the Channel 4 broadcast on Friday evening.

Condemning what he called a wider “unfunded spree of borrowing and more debt” among his competitors, Sunak condemned the Truss’s proposal to put off repayments of public debt built up due to Covid.

“There is no such thing as Covid debt,” a visibly irritated Sunak told the foreign secretary. “Debt is debt. And the answer to too much borrowing can’t be yet more borrowing. It’s as simple as that.”

When Truss argued that better monetary policy would mitigate inflation even with tax cuts, Sunak snapped: “Liz, we have to be honest. Borrowing your way out of inflation isn’t a plan, it’s a fairytale.”

In an often difficult night for all the candidates – also comprising Penny Mordaunt, the trade minister and bookmakers’ favourite; the former levelling up minister Kemi Badenoch; and the backbencher Tom Tugendhat – not a single member of the audience of floating voters raised their hands when asked if they trusted politicians.

A long section on trust saw none of the five willing say whether Johnson was honest. “Sometimes,” said Badenoch, while Mordaunt talked about “really severe issues”, and Truss spoke of “mistakes”. Tugendhat won applause by saying, simply: “No.”

A separate show of hands after a debate on energy bills saw just three people say they felt politicians were doing enough to help people. When asked at the end of the debate if it had made them more likely to vote Conservative, only 10 of the audience raised their hands.

Read more from Peter Walker here: Tory leadership race explodes into acrimony during TV debate

It was essentially an internal debate for the Conservative party but on national television tonight, and the SNP’s MP for Dunfermline & West Fife, Douglas Chapman, has made quite clear what he thought about it all.

The candidates have begun to post clips of their highlights or closing messages on Twitter, so for those of you who didn’t see, or would like to re-live those moments, here are Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat.

I’ve put together my five key takeaways from tonight’s debate:

Tom Tugendhat was the only one able to answer freely

Given the opportunity to answer “Yes” or “No” to the question “is Boris Johnson honest?”, Tom Tugendhat was the only person able to do it. He got warm applause for simply saying: “No”.

Truss has a delivery mantra problem

Truss tried to focus again and again about delivery in every department, saying that her trade deals with Australia and Japan had been considered impossible, and that she had stood up to Vladimir Putin. But it all felt heavily scripted from her.

Sunak’s Treasury experience is a potential asset – but not with party members

Frequently during the debate he demonstrated a better command of the numbers and Treasury brief, but you still ended up with the feeling that a man instinctively fiscally conservative is being pushed into a corner and portrayed as a leftist for not wanting to cut taxes.

Trans rights questions are not going away for Mordaunt

The trade minister claimed to be baffled that anybody found her position unclear. It may not be high up the agenda when you poll voters on what they care about, but expect to see this get asked of the women standing to be PM again and again.

There was little love in the room for any of the candidates

It wasn’t a feral BBC Question Time audience, but at times, particularly when issues around trust and Partygate were being touched upon, the disdain for the audience with politicians was palpable. Whoever wins out of this contest in the end, they have an uphill climb.

There’s more here: Five key takeaways from the first Conservative leadership debate

Henry Zeffman at the Times has pinpointed the exchange in the middle where Truss and Sunak were at odds about future tax and borrowing plans. He writes:

After a tieless and relaxed Rishi Sunak explained why he believes tackling inflation is more important than tax cuts and warned against more government borrowing, Liz Truss saw her moment.

She reeled off a list of countries that are borrowing more than the UK, adding: “I believe they’re taking the right approach and we should take a similar approach.”

Sunak has had three years of practice at explaining the abstractions of fiscal and monetary policy in digestible, human terms — and it showed. But it is important to remember how eager Conservative MPs and the Conservative base are for tax cuts. Sunak’s position has the advantage of being clear and firm, but it remains a position that many of his colleagues loathe. Truss stands robustly on the other side of that divide.

Here is a set of assessments from my colleague Peter Walker, who ultimately called the night a victory for Keir Starmer.

Final assessments:
Sunak: did quite well, mainly punchy interventions on economics/tax. But he’s still the legacy man, Johnson’s no 2 – and that’s a problem.
Mordaunt: sounded fluent, no big errors, but equally hard to remember much of what she said.

— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) July 15, 2022

Truss: a tough night. A bit wooden, as ever. Got the worst of the tax exchanges.
Badenoch: Actually said a few interesting things (and a few odd ones), but she still won’t make the final two.
Tugendhat: Possibly the best performance – but he’s still out of the race on Monday.

— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) July 15, 2022

And finally:
Starmer: often criticised for just sitting back and letting his opponents make tear each other apart, but paid off handsomely this time. Tonight’s winner.

— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) July 15, 2022

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