Truss trades on Yorkshire roots as Sunak sets out Tory leadership vision in first hustings

Conservative leadership candidates are appearing at hustings in Leeds where they will meet party members

Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, right, answers questions from party members in the audience during the first Conservative Party leadership hustings in Leeds, UK, on Thursday, July 28, 2022.  The UK appears set to privatize Channel Four Television Corp.  after both Conservative Party candidates vying to be prime minister indicated support for the plan. Photographer: Anthony Devlin / Bloomberg
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UK Conservative leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak took their campaigns to northern England on Thursday evening.

They are appearing at party hustings in Leeds, Yorkshire, broadcast by LBC and hosted by Nick Ferrari.

It is the first of 12 sessions for Conservative party members to question the candidates looking to become the party’s next leader and, with it, prime minister.

Ms Truss gave a hustings speech loaded with references to Yorkshire, saying her schooling there had taught her grit and straight talking, and promised to channel the spirit of revered Leeds United football manager Don Revie.

Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer and leadership candidate Rishi Sunak (R) talks to presenter Nick Ferrari (L) at the Conservative Party leadership election hustings at the Elland Road Conference Centre in Leeds, Britain 28 July 2022.  This event is the first of twelve hustings which will take place all around the UK attended by Tory Party members who will vote for the new leader who will be announced on the 5 September 2022.   EPA / PETER POWELL

The audience of Tory members applauded her speech when she promised to boost Britain's farm exports and improve rail links in the north of England.

Warming up the crowd for Mr Sunak, former Brexit minister David Davis praised him as a "brave man" for having supported Britain's EU exit during the 2016 referendum, making an unspoken contrast with Ms Truss.

Mr Sunak outlined his vision to tackle National Health Service waiting lists, “grip” inflation and “restore trust, rebuild the economy, reunite our country”.

“This campaign has been absolutely brilliant," he said. "I have been having the time of my life over the last week being out and about across the country, talking to all of you, talking to all our members.

“We will cut VAT on fuel. But what I won’t do is embark on a spree borrowing tens and tens of billions of pounds of unfunded promises and put them on the country’s credit card, and pass them on to our children and our grandchildren to pick up the tab.

“That’s not right, that’s not responsible and it’s certainly not Conservative. But of course, once we grip inflation and ensure that mortgage rates don’t rise and cripple people, I’m going to cut taxes.”

He said the next Tory leader would need to appeal to swing voters "in every part of our country" to win the next general election.

"And I believe with all my heart that I am the person, I am the candidate, that gives our party the best opportunity to secure that victory.”

Members were urged to ask positive questions and bring out the strengths of each candidate, amid what has sometimes been a fractious leadership contest.

An audience member caused murmurs by criticising Mr Sunak for having triggered the mutiny that brought down Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saying: "You've stabbed him in the back."

Mr Sunak responded that he had resigned from the government because of differences of opinion with Mr Johnson on the economy and that he was acting on his principles by stepping down.

Ms Truss said the departing Mr Johnson had done a "fantastic job" and suggested he was her favourite of the three prime ministers she has served as a Cabinet minister.

Winning votes in the north of England was key to Mr Johnson’s general election victory but it is not clear how the region — often a Labour stronghold — will vote next time round.

Both candidates have local ties, with Ms Truss is playing up the time she spent in Leeds as a child and Mr Sunak representing the county’s Richmond constituency.

Opinion polls show that Mr Sunak is more attractive to floating voters that can decide general elections, but among the Conservative party members who will decide this contest, Ms Truss is the favoured candidate.

“I grew up in Leeds, I know how poor the transport is and frankly, it's not got much better since I was a teenager getting the bus into Leeds city centre,” Ms Truss said in the city earlier on Thursday.

“What I want to see is really fantastic rail services, better roads so people are able to get into work.”

Asked how she would afford the project, given the vast tax cuts she has pledged, she said: “The taxes that I am cutting are affordable within our budget.

“By creating new low tax investment zones in places like West Yorkshire, by enabling the post-Brexit reforms to take place, unleashing more investment from the city, we will grow the economy faster.

"That will bring in more tax revenue and that will enable us to afford those projects.”

She also promised to “fix the Treasury's funding formula”, if she gets the keys to No 10, to make sure the region gets a “fairer share” of resources.

Mr Sunak is seeking to regain his footing after being accused by allies of Ms Truss that he is “flip-flopping” on fiscal policy.

He pledged to temporarily slash VAT on energy bills despite repeatedly calling Ms Truss's tax-cutting plans “comforting fairy tales”.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, who is backing Mr Sunak, defended the decision to announce his pledge to cut VAT from domestic energy bills for a year at this stage in the race.

“He's announced it because it looks like the energy price cap may rise higher by several hundred pounds than we had thought it would,” Mr Harper told Newsnight.

“And he's always said very consistently that if he needed to do more, he would.

“And he's announced this particular policy now partly so that those people listening to this programme at home will have some peace of mind that, if he were elected prime minister, that actually he is always going to have their back in the same way he did during the pandemic.”

The new party leader, decided by a vote of party members, should be prepared to replace Mr Johnson as prime minister by early September.

Updated: July 28, 2022, 9:56 PM