Conservative leadership race candidates' fortunes vary in first television debate

Rishi Sunak manages to remain cool on economy as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has a difficult night

From left to right, Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss at Here East studios in Stratford, east London, before the live television debate for the candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party, hosted by Channel 4. PA
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The five remaining candidates in the UK Conservative Party leadership race got through the first live television debate with a few scrapes but no lethal wounds on Friday night.

The former chancellor Rishi Sunak bore a few blows to his reputation for having served so long in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government but managed to keep his cool under pressure.

The candidate who appeared to go backwards was Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who gave sometimes difficult to understand answers and continued to express her loyalty to Mr Johnson.

She was perhaps fearful of alienating those MP supporters of the British prime minister who could prove crucial in getting her into the vital final pairing for the leadership contest in which the 200,000 Conservative Party members will vote for the next party leader.

In a snap Opinium poll of 1,000 “normal voters” following the Channel 4 debate, she came last with 6 per cent. Tom Tugendhat topped it with 36 per cent, Mr Sunak came second with 25 per cent and Penny Mordaunt and Badenoch were on 12 per cent.

The show appeared to finally quash a substantial amount of Mr Johnson’s remaining credibility by suggesting to those serving in his government that he was now a toxic brand.

Facing an audience of floating voters, the candidates were told that the public’s key issues were over Mr Johnson’s dishonesty that ultimately led to his downfall.

Most turned on the British prime minister, stating that they did not trust him.

Conservative Party leadership contender Rishi Sunak kept his cool despite pressure from his rivals. PA

When asked if they thought Mr Johnson was dishonest the first clapping of the night came when Mr Tugendhat, who wore a Special Boat Service Association tie, shook his head and said “no”.

Mr Sunak, whose resignation as chancellor ultimately led to Mr Johnson quitting his post, has been criticised for remaining in government too long while aware of his boss’s issues with the truth.

“I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible and ultimately reached the conclusion that I couldn't and that's why I resigned,” he told the Channel 4 audience.

Ms Mordaunt, who is the current favourite to win the race, disclosed that she had turned down a senior post in Mr Johnson’s government because she did not trust him.

Asked whether she could be trusted she stated: “You can trust me because I have spoken truth to power. I had the opportunity to serve at a higher office in this government and my answer to the prime minister was longer than the traditional one.”

Liz Truss made little impression on the public, a snap poll showed. AP

Ms Truss responded to the question over trust with a rambling answer on the international trade deals she had struck. She was pulled up by the show’s host Krishnan Guru-Murthy for not answering the question.

“I raised issues with him in private,” she then stated. Then she stuck to her previously repeated line that “I owed him my loyalty”.

But political commentators considered Mr Sunak to have pulled through the 90-minute debate with his credibility intact, suggesting he looked confident and relaxed.

The outsiders in the race, Mr Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch, landed a number of punches, with the former attracting the most applause for a number of eviscerating comments.

However, Ms Badenoch was coughing repeatedly during the debate and her team failed to answer whether she had taken a Covid-19 test beforehand.

Ms Mordaunt gave a steady performance, while not scoring any significant hits, handling the early questions well and not dropping the ball.

Given Ms Truss’s slightly awkward and convoluted deliveries — she had to be cut off mid-sentence for overrunning her final one-minute pitch on why she should be prime minister — it is possible that she will now remain firmly in third place as the next round of MP voting takes place on Monday.

An alarming part of the debate came when a number of contenders, including Ms Badenoch, appeared to row back on the government’s commitment to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.

Questioned over why he continued to serve in government despite being fined for breaking lockdown rules during Downing Street parties, Mr Sunak, who is teetotal, stated it was an error.

“It was a mistake and I apologise for it at the time and I apologise for it again. I wish it had never happened,” he said, looking uncomfortable.

Ms Badenoch made a number of cutting comments, undaunted by her senior government colleagues.

The former equalities minister admonished Mr Tugendhat for never serving in government and thus not having had to make difficult decisions.

“There are no solutions, only trade-offs,” she told him.

Ms Mordaunt has been personally attacked in the newspapers in campaign potentially orchestrated by Ms Truss’s team.

“Have you had the dogs out attacking Penny Mordaunt in the newspapers?” Mr Guru-Murthy asked.

“I'm running an entirely positive campaign,” Ms Truss replied.

In another attack that showed Mr Sunak’s vulnerability for serving in Mr Johnson’s government, he was criticised for agreeing to the 1.5 per cent rise in National Insurance to pay for the NHS post-pandemic.

Mr Tugendhat, who served alongside British special forces in Afghanistan, revealed a private conversation he had with Mr Sunak.

“We had a long conversation about it, and you set out your position and I asked why on earth this was going to be necessary. You told me [it was] because the boss wanted it.”

Mr Sunak, who looked momentarily crestfallen, said he also supported the rise.

“The PM was right to want to tackle Covid backlogs. And if we invest in public services we have to pay for it.”

The contenders will participate in another television debate on ITV on Sunday night.

Updated: July 16, 2022, 3:45 PM