Rishi Sunak has again insisted that inflation must be brought under control before the government can cut taxes, following a deadly clash with conservative leadership contenders Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss.
In a combative performance during the contest’s first televised debate on Friday night, the former chancellor rounded off his rivals by saying proposals to increase borrowing to pay for tax cuts were a “fairy tale”.
Speaking during a visit to Teesside, where he won the backing of regional mayor Ben Houchen, Mr Sunak doubled down on his message by saying the priority must be to curb soaring prices.
“I think the number one economic priority that we face as a country is inflation.
“I want to get inflation under control because inflation is what makes everybody poorer,” he said.
“If we don’t get this under control now, it will last longer and that’s not a good thing.
“Once we have done that, I will propose tax cuts.”
Mr Sunak dominated the vote in the first two rounds of Tory MPs, but polls suggested he would fight one of his main rivals – Foreign Secretary Ms Truss or Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt – during a final ballot of all party members.
He insisted, however, that he remains the candidate best equipped to take on Labor and win the general election.
“I will continue to advocate positively for my candidacy and believe I am the best person I can be to help our party defeat Keir Starmer and defeat Labor in a general election,” the MP for Richmond said.
“That’s what the new leader must be able to do. They must also restore confidence, rebuild the economy and reunite our country, and I think I am best placed to do all of this.
Following the televised showdown on Channel 4, Mr Sunak’s campaign team claimed he had “unequivocally won” the debate.
A snap poll of 1,159 viewers by pollsters Opinium placed him in second place, with 24% saying he had been the top performer, behind Tom Tugendhat – considered the underdog in the contest – on 36%.
Ms Mordaunt, the Minister for International Trade, is tied with former Equality Minister Kemi Baden for third place with 12%, while Ms Truss, the Foreign Secretary, is in fifth place with just 7 %.
Meanwhile, a poll of more than 4,400 people by JL Partners for The Sunday Telegraph found that of those who had heard of the five candidates, Mr Sunak had the highest approval rating among Tory voters .
Of those who voted Conservative in 2019, 48% thought the former chancellor would make a good prime minister compared to 39% for Ms Truss, 33% for Ms Mordaunt, 29% for Mr Tugendhat and 21% for Ms Badenoch.
Mr Tugendhat, the only candidate with no ministerial experience, said on Saturday he was committed to Brexit, despite being a strong supporter of Remain in the 2016 referendum.
He said there remained significant issues with the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol which needed to be resolved with the EU.
“One of the other things I will make sure of is Brexit,” he told GB News.
“What Boris Johnson did was deliver the bulk of Brexit, let’s be honest, there’s still Northern Ireland, and that’s a really big deal. Let’s face it, it’s going to be easy because it is not.
Despite seeing his vote tally plummet in the MPs’ second round of voting, in which he finished fifth, the former army officer said he had no intention of giving up .
“I’ve never turned down a challenge because the odds were stacked against me. I don’t plan to start now,” he said.
Mr Tugendhat, who says he offers a clean break from Mr Johnson’s job as Prime Minister, was applauded by the studio audience during the televised debate when he was the only candidate to answer with an unequivocal ‘no’ when asked if the Prime Minister was an honest man.