Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have now gone head to head in six hustings with Tory members in various locations across the country. A lot has been said and, I hate to break it you, a lot still remains to be said – with six further sessions scheduled. We’ve cut through the noise and navigated various U-turns to bring you this rundown of the leadership candidates’ latest comments on five key policy areas.
Sunak set out plans today to cut energy bills for 16 million vulnerable people and said he was prepared to find up to £10bn to reduce the impact of October’s energy price cap rise, on top of the support announced by the government in May. Writing in The Times, the former Chancellor also declared that he would axe VAT on energy bills, which he claimed would save all households around £200.
Sunak really seems to be banking on the public – or more importantly in the context of the leadership election, the Tory membership – having forgotten that he served as Chancellor up until his dramatic resignation early last month. Labour slammed the policies he set out in the Spring Statement back in May, with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves declaring that they showed Sunak “does not understand the scale of the challenge” of the cost-of-living crisis. In January, he voted against Labour’s proposal to cut VAT on energy bills, which he justified in part by saying the move would “disproportionately benefit wealthier households”.
Truss, for her part, has been forced to deny that she has ruled out providing extra help to households beyond tax cuts. When asked on Wednesday if she was ruling out any form of grant to help with energy bills, Truss said: “That’s not what I said.” She continued: “My priority is making sure we’re not taking money off people and then giving it back to them later on. I believe in people keeping their own money and I believe in a low-tax economy. What’s wrong is taking money from people in taxes and then giving back to them in benefits.” Just a day earlier, she had appeared to confirm that she would only offer help through reversing the National Insurance increase and temporarily suspending green levies.
At the latest hustings with Tory members, Truss expressed strong opposition to the idea of a further windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas companies. She said: “I don’t think profit is a dirty word. And the fact it has become a dirty word in our society is a massive problem … The way we bandy the word profit around as if it’s something that’s dirty and evil? We shouldn’t be doing that as Conservatives. We’re playing into the hands of people like Jeremy Corbyn, who want to completely undermine our way of life.”
But there’s profit and then there’s profiteering, isn’t there? British Gas owner Centrica announced in July that its operating profits for the six months to the end of June were £1.34bn – well above the £262m reported for the same period last year. Shell revealed that it made record profits of £9.5bn between April and June – an increase of 26% on the first quarter of this year, which was a previous high. This at a time when the energy price cap is predicted to reach £3,582 per year from October and potentially rise to £4,266 in January (it is currently at £1,971). And when more than half of households in the UK are expected to be pushed into fuel poverty by January 2023, according to a report by academics at University of York. “Dirty” and “evil” seem pretty restrained adjectives to me.
In his piece for The Times, Sunak discussed how he would fund the £10bn support package he proposed. He said it is “likely” that the government will raise more revenue from the energy profits levy he introduced while Chancellor – the Tories’ version of Labour’s windfall tax proposal – as energy prices continue to rise. He said he would also “drive a programme to identify savings across Whitehall”, and added that he was prepared to undertake “some limited and temporary, one-off borrowing” as a last resort if required.
Let’s not forget, though, how strongly Sunak resisted Labour’s windfall tax proposal, with the government he served in voting against the plan on three occasions. Labour first called for the tax to be implemented back in January, and the opposition calculated that the delay between then and its eventual introduction cost the government approximately £1.9bn in lost revenue.
In a hustings with Tory members in Darlington on Tuesday, Truss said her “first priority is reducing taxes.” She told attendees: “The first thing we should do as Conservatives is help people have more of their own money. What I don’t support is taking money off people in tax, and then giving it back to them in handouts. That to me is Gordon Brown economics. Frankly, we had years of that under Labour, and what we got was a slow-growth economy.” Truss has pledged to cancel the rise in National Insurance contributions, axe a planned rise in corporation tax and temporarily suspend green levies on energy bills
Sunak told members that tax cuts were “not much alone” for people living off pensions, adding that it was “wrong” for Truss to “rule out direct support”. The former Chancellor has pledged to reduce VAT on domestic energy bills from 5% to zero and cut 3p off income tax by late 2029. Sunak said the latter pledge was the “biggest income tax cut since Margaret Thatcher’s government” and said it was a realistic promise in the current economic climate. “I will never get taxes down in a way that just puts inflation up,” he said, promising to “always be honest about the challenges we face”.
Labour has denounced Sunak and Truss as “stooges of the Johnson administration”, highlighting that they both backed every one of the Prime Minister’s 15 tax rises, which have brought the UK’s tax burden to its highest level in 70 years. The opposition has also strongly criticised the leadership hopefuls for failing to set out how they would pay for their proposed tax cuts and not revealing which public services might lose funding as a result.
Early in the campaign, Ed Miliband accused Truss, Sunak and the other candidates for Tory leadership of “running away” from net zero and declared that they had demonstrated “climate illiteracy”. He argued that Sunak had “dragged his feet in the Treasury in investing in the green agenda” and singled out Truss over her support for fracking. The leadership contest in general has been criticised for focusing too much on tax cuts and the ‘culture war’ rather than the climate crisis, meaning the candidates’ positions on the environment have not been as intensely scrutinised as they should have been. What has been revealed is far from encouraging.
Truss said on Wednesday that net zero could not be achieved through green levies, dismissing this approach as a “left-wing solution”. She declared that solar panels are “one of the most depressing sights when you’re driving through England”, though she clarified that she likes them in general, just not in fields. Truss has also pledged to end the moratorium on fracking to boost energy supplies.
Sunak told The Telegraph earlier in the campaign that “wind energy will be an important part of our strategy”, but added: “As Prime Minister, I would scrap plans to relax the ban on onshore wind in England, instead focusing on building more turbines offshore.” He said: “I am committed to net zero by 2050, but that can’t mean neglecting our energy security.” At a party hustings in July, Sunak also committed to “look to introduce new energy efficiency schemes for housing”.
Speaking to Tory members in Darlington, Truss declared that “appalling people traffickers are creating terrible illegal immigration across the English channel”. She added: “I worked with Priti Patel on the Rwanda scheme, it is the right scheme. But we need to expand it to more countries and legislate so that the British bill of rights is not overruled by the ECHR and we are able to control our own borders.”
Sunak pledged at the hustings that he wants to “finally get a grip” on small boats crossing the Channel. He said: “For too long, all of us have been watching on our TV screens scenes, that are simply unacceptable, of people coming here illegally. Now, with my plan, under my leadership, we’ll finally get a grip on that situation, stop the boats, restore trust, and take back control of our borders.” Earlier in the campaign, Sunak said he would do “whatever it takes” to get the Rwanda plan “off the ground and operating at scale” and vowed to pursue more “migration partnerships” with other countries.
The policy has been strongly criticised by Labour, and several Tory MPs have spoken out against the idea of offshoring asylum seekers, with Conservative grandee David Davis describing it as a “moral, economic and practical failure”. Johnson justified the policy as a means to tackle the ongoing small boats crisis and prevent further lives being lost in the Channel. But the government’s assertion that the policy would act as a deterrent to people smugglers continues to be disproved: 2,862 refugees are estimated to have crossed the Channel between June 1st and July 12th.