LONDON, July 17 – The five Conservative contenders still vying to be Britain’s next prime minister clashed over tax cuts in a televised debate on Sunday, with the two frontrunners – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – stepping up their battle on the economy.
With no clear candidate to succeed Boris Johnson, who is stepping down after a series of scandals, the battle to be the next leader remains unpredictable and increasingly fractious, exposing rifts in the ruling Conservative Party.
Ex-finance minister Rishi Sunak has emerged as the favorite among the 358 Conservative lawmakers, who will hold further votes this week to whittle down the field of contenders to a final two.
He said on Sunday evening that his number one priority would be tackling inflation and not making it worse before delivering tax cuts.
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Foreign minister Liz Truss, who has proposed plans to axe payroll and corporation tax increases at the cost of over 30 billion pounds ($36 billion) a year, said Sunak had raised taxes to the highest level in 70 years.
“Raising taxes at this moment will choke off economic growth,” she said in the debate, hosted by broadcaster ITV.
Sunak retorted that he would “love to cut tax,” but it would come at the cost of higher inflation. “This something-for-nothing economics isn’t conservative; it’s socialism,” he said.
Junior Minister Penny Mordaunt, who currently ranks third, also aimed at Sunak, saying the public needs “immediate action” to tackle the rising cost of living.
RACE STILL OPEN
A JL Partners poll for the Sunday Telegraph suggested almost half of the Conservative voters thought Sunak would make an excellent prime minister, ahead of Truss and Mordaunt.
However, Truss also has comprehensive support, including those most loyal to Johnson. Mordaunt has topped surveys of the 200,000 party members who will ultimately choose who becomes Conservative leader and, therefore, prime minister.
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In a demonstration of how open the race is, a survey of party members for the Conservative Home website on Saturday suggested former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch was ahead of the others, with Truss in second and Mordaunt, currently the bookmakers’ favorite, slipping to third.
That came after the fifth candidate, Tom Tugendhat, chair of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, topped a viewers’ poll after the first TV debate on Friday.
Whoever gets the job will take on rocketing inflation and low economic growth, as well as the public’s lack of confidence in politics after Johnson’s scandal-ridden time in power.
Opinion polls also suggest the Conservatives fall significantly behind the Labor Party’s opposition.
When asked by the moderator, all candidates said they would not hold a primary election if they won. No national election needs to be held in Britain until 2024.
One candidate will be knocked out every day in the next three days, leaving a final two to face the verdict of Conservative Party members. They will vote for the winner, who will be announced on Sept. 5.