Trust, tax and Brexit: Candidates clash in ITV leadership debate

Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana reports on what we have learnt after the fiery ITV debate in which five Conservative MPs clashed in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as party leader and PM

The Tory MPs competing to become the next prime minister have gone head-to-head in an ITV televised leadership debate.

The race's remaining candidates - Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Tom Tugendhat - took questions from host Julie Etchingham on issues dominating the campaign.

Rishi Sunak, seen as the frontrunner in the contest, engaged in more furious exchanges with Tory leadership rivals Ms Truss, the foreign secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, a former equalities minister.

The former chancellor accused Ms Truss of peddling “something-for-nothing” economics after she said he was choking off growth by raising taxes to their highest level in 70 years.

A snap poll of 1,001 people who watched the debate shows Rishi Sunak came out on top, with 24% of those surveyed thinking he performed best, followed by Tom Tugendhat who scored 19%.

Some 17% of those surveyed thought Penny Mordaunt performed best, followed by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss with 15% and then Kemi Badenoch with 12%.

Opinium did some snap polling following the ITV leadership debate. Credit: Opininium

Tackling inflation and the issue of increasing taxes dominated the start of the debate, with Ms Mordaunt and Ms Truss hitting out at Mr Sunak - who resigned as chancellor a week ago - for raising National Insurance.

Mr Sunak said he heard Ms Mordaunt was planning to scrap his rule that the government shouldn’t borrow for day-to-day spending and insisted it's "dangerous" to put that "spending on the country’s credit card" and claimed even former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's policies didn't go as far.

Foreign Secretary Ms Truss told Mr Sunak raising taxes to tackle the spiralling cost of living is "taking money out of people’s pockets" but the ex-chancellor called the foreign secretary's policies "socialist".

Ms Truss said: “Rishi, you have raised taxes to the highest level in 70 years. That is not going to drive economic growth.

"You raised national insurance even though people like me opposed it in Cabinet at the time, because we could have afforded to fund the NHS through general taxation.

“The fact is that raising taxes at this moment will choke off economic growth, it will prevent us getting the revenue we need to pay off the debt.”

Robert Peston describes Sunday's ITV debate as 'one of the most gripping political debates he has ever seen' 

Mr Sunak responded that the pandemic damaged the economy and the money has to be paid back.

“There’s a cost to these things and the cost of higher inflation, higher mortgage rates, eroded savings," he retorted.

"And you know what? This something for nothing economics isn’t Conservative. It’s socialism."

As ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston notes, the candidates were attacking him the most, which cements his place as the frontrunner in the competition.

Who would have Boris Johnson in their Cabinet if they were PM?

None of the Tory leadership candidates said they would give the outgoing PM a job in their Cabinets if they became prime minister.

The five contenders were asked whether they would let him sit at their Cabinet table.

None of them raised their hands when asked if they would give him a Cabinet role.

Watch the full ITV Tory leadership debate

'Easy to talk'

Mr Tugendhat - a trenchant critic of Mr Johnson who has no Cabinet experience - said it was time for a fresh start and people with credibility to front the party and regain the public's trust.

He suggested that those who served in Mr Johnson’s government “lent credibility to the chaos” which has made it difficult for the Conservatives to win the next general election.

Ms Badenoch hit back at the veteran and said she's "not ashamed of anything we did in government" and quipped it's "easy to talk".

“We have a lot to be proud of. We got Brexit done and what the prime minister did on Ukraine and on vaccines was fantastic," she retorted.

"Serving in government is not easy - it requires taking difficult decisions. Tom has never done that. It’s very easy for him to criticise what we’ve been doing but we have been out on the frontline making the case."

Mr Tugendhat interrupted: ‘Sorry I have been on the frontline. I’ve been on the frontline if Afghanistan and Iraq.

"And I’ve been on the frontline of the argument against Putin and against China, I’ve changed government policy on this.”

“But you haven’t taken any decisions - it’s easy to talk, talking is easy," replied Ms Badenoch.

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Would any of the candidates call a general election?

The five Tory leadership candidates all ruled out calling a snap election to secure a mandate from the public if they became prime minister.

Asked if she would call an election, Ms Mordaunt told the ITV debate: “No, we all stood on the same manifesto, we all have to come together and it’s a shared manifesto and a shared vision.”

Mr Tugendhat said: “No, we have a manifesto to deliver and I intend to deliver it. By showing leadership and commitment we can bring the party together, bring the country together, end this disunity and actually have a clean start.”

Ms Badenoch said: “We need to give people some stability, they are tired of all the upheaval," while Ms Truss said "we need 100% of all of our effort on delivering for the people of Britain".

Mr Sunak said: “We face an enormous economic challenge and we now need someone who has got the grip and the experience to deal with that, and that should be the priority going forward for the next leader.”

Would any of the candidates sit down with Vladimir Putin if they were PM?

Asked about their approach to the Russian leader, the Tory hopefuls revealed whether they would be willing to take part in face-to-face talks at the G20 summit with Putin amid the war in Ukraine.

They all said no, apart from Foreign Secretary Mr Truss who said she would "go there and call Putin out" in front of "important swing countries".

Mr Sunak said he had walked out of a G20 meeting when the Russian finance minister took part.

Where do the PM hopefuls stand on climate change?

As the UK's first ever red warning for extreme heat is issued across the country, each candidate set out their plans to tackle climate change to meet the country's net zero goal by 2050.

Ms Mordaunt said she was committed to the target but “it mustn’t clobber people”.

Mr Tugendhat said he was committed to “making sure we deliver the nuclear reactors to keep us green”, supporting carbon capture and storage projects and changing “the way we do wind farms” so they can be delivered more quickly.

Ms Badenoch said the 2050 target was for a time when none of them would be in office “to be accountable for it”.

“If there are things in the plan that will bankrupt this country, I will change them, if there are things in the plan that will make life difficult for ordinary people, I will change them,” she said. “I do believe in climate change, but we have to do it in a way that is sustainable.”

Ms Truss said she backed the target, but “we need to deliver it in a way that doesn’t harm people and businesses”, highlighting her plan for a moratorium on the green levy on energy bills.

Mr Sunak backed the target, saying it was about the inheritance left to children and grandchildren. “But we need to bring people with us and if we go too hard and too fast then we will lose people and that’s no way to get there,” he said.

Kemi Badenoch repeated a claim that she had been responsible for reversing a policy on transgender people. Credit: Jonathan Hordle/ITV Handout

Did Penny Mordaunt back gender self ID?

Pressed about the “toxic campaign” being waged against one another and where this will take the future of politics, the issue of where Ms Mordaunt stands on self-identity in regards to transgender rights was raised.

Earlier, Ms Mordaunt hit back at fresh claims that she supported gender self-identification for those who wish to transition when she was a government equalities minister.

Ms Badenoch and Ms Truss claimed they had reversed the policy.

Ms Mordaunt has previously strongly challenged the claims and suggested it is an attempt by her rivals to smear her campaign.

Ms Badenoch later clarified during the ITV debate that she could not understand, if Ms Mordaunt had not backed that policy, why it was in place during her time as equalities minister.

Ms Mordaunt insisted she has refuted this, adding: "I know why this is being done. But all attempts to paint me as an out of touch individual will fail".

Ms Badenoch said she’s “telling it as I saw it” but Ms Mordaunt continued: "I’m the only person on this stage that has won and fought a Labour seat. My constituents don’t elect people who are out of touch”.

Mr Tugendhat further pressed Ms Mordaunt on when she will reveal the details of her plans for government.

Ms Mordaunt, who is currently a frontrunner along with Mr Sunak, said the polling shows she is the only one that can beat Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer - something the other candidates disagreed with and laughed at.

Rishi Sunak ignoring Covid loan fraud concerns?

The candidates had the opportunity to put a question to a rival of their choice. Ms Badenoch directed hers at Mr Sunak and questioned why he allegedly didn't listen when she raised the issue of Covid loan fraud during the pandemic.

“I believe we need to support people who do the right thing and not let those who don’t off the hook, and when we both worked in the treasury, myself and other ministers, raised the issue of Covid loan fraud and you dismissed us. And it’s cost taxpayers £17 billion," she said.

"Why didn’t you take us seriously?"

Mr Sunak insisted "that’s absolutely not right" and said he worked on putting new systems in place to tackle fraud and that “billions have been recovered” and arrests have been made.

But she claimed that one of his ministers resigned over the issue and instead backed her campaign instead of his.

Mordaunt asks Sunak why he won’t raise defence spending. Everyone is laying into Sunak. Which shows he is the candidate to beat.

What were the candidates' closing statements?

What happens next in the leadership race?

The debate took place ahead of the third round of voting by MPs on Monday, with one more candidate due to to be eliminated, leaving just four.

Subsequent rounds throughout next week will eliminate the contender with the fewest votes until only two remain.

This pair will then go forward into a postal ballot of party members.