Rishi Sunak says he ‘challenged the system’ and stopped December Covid lockdown

The scrutiny is ratcheting up in the Tory leadership race, as Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports

Rishi Sunak has said the country was “hours away” from another national coronavirus lockdown in December but he stepped in and stopped it.

The former chancellor, who is battling against Liz Truss to become the next Conservative Party leader and prime minister, said it shows that he is “prepared to fight” for what he believes in.

Last December the Omicron variant of Covid-19 ran rampant and Boris Johnson urged the nation to get booster jabs.

Speaking on Tonight With Andrew Marr on LBC, Mr Sunak said: “What I did in December was fly back from a Government trip I was on overseas and I flew back to this country to stop us sleepwalking into a national lockdown, because we were hours away from a press conference that was going to lock this country down again because of Omicron.

“And I came back and fought very hard against the system because I believed that would be the wrong thing for this country, with all the damage it would have done to businesses, to children’s education, to people’s lives.”

Mr Sunak said he “challenged the system” and was glad he “won” the argument, adding that it should give people confidence that he is “prepared to push hard and fight for the things that I believe in even when that’s difficult”.

Both Mr Sunak and Liz Truss have been embroiled in back and forth over not just the keys to Number 10, but also who is best placed to keep Labour in the opposition benches.

Both have claimed that the other would spell an all but certain Tory loss if they went up against Sir Keir Starmer's Labour Party in a general election.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have been trading blows over their stances on the economy. Credit: PA

The former chancellor's comments were made despite him saying he wanted to avoid so-called "blue on blue" attacks on the foreign secretary as they battle for the keys to Number 10. He said: "If you look at all the polling evidence that we have and you see what that says, it's pretty clear that I am the person that is best placed to defeat Keir Starmer in the next election."His remarks, made on LBC's Andrew Marr show, come off the back of Ms Truss' own assertion that it would be "very hard for Conservatives to win an election" if there is no change to the current economic policy and the UK heads into a recession.

She said Rishi Sunak's economic policy, which is forecast to lead to a recession, would make it very difficult for the Conservative party to win a general election.

Whoever wins the Tory leadership race and becomes the UK's next prime minister will have to face not only a growing cost-of-living crisis but also war in Ukraine.

To that end, Ms Truss vowed to “bulldoze” through “endless government bureaucracy” as prime minister and would not “take no for an answer”.

“I get stuff done, whether it’s the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, whether it’s the dozens of trade deals, whether it’s the sanctions regime on Russia – we’ve now got the toughest sanctions – because I don’t take no for an answer and I go in and I fight for what is right, I hear what people say.”

She said “endless government bureaucracy” is a “waste of taxpayers’ money” and “causing real pain to people in very, very difficult circumstances”.

It comes after attacking Mr Sunak's tax policy as she dealt her former Cabinet colleague a blow in what's likely to be a tumultuous final stage in the race to be prime minister.

She said the former chancellor's National Insurance rise was a “mistake” and promised to axe it, adding that current tax plans – drawn up by Mr Sunak before he resigned from government – will lead to recession.

In what appeared to be a further dig at her rival, the foreign secretary added: “We have got the highest taxes for 70 years and we have got lower debt than the United States, than Japan, than Canada. No other countries are raising taxes.”

Ms Truss made the remarks in a BBC appearance on Thursday morning - her first broadcast interview of the contest - as another six weeks of campaigning gets underway after the first stage concluded on Wednesday.

Ms Truss scraped into the race's final round with 113 votes from Tory MPs, just eight more than Penny Mordaunt, whereas Mr Sunak surged through with 137 votes.

When quizzed over Ms Truss' economic plans, Mr Sunak warned that going on a “huge borrowing spree” would only “make the situation worse” when it comes to inflation.

He defended his planned rise in corporation tax, saying the increase was “perfectly reasonable”.

The hopeful prime minister also stated that he remained a supporter of the government's controversial Rwanda policy, saying the UK needs to "have control of our borders".

A new poll of Tory members has placed Liz Truss in the lead, but as Carl Dinnen explains, she's still under a great deal of scrutiny

He said: "I think the Rwanda policy gives us the opportunity to solve that, but we now need to make it work, and one of my priorities will be to make that policy work properly so that we have proper control of our borders."

The pair, who sat around the same Cabinet table for many months under Boris Johnson's leadership, will spend the coming weeks urging the UK's 160,000 Tory party members to elect them leader.

A winner will be announced on September 5 and will assume office the following day.

Bookmakers placed the foreign secretary as the frontrunner, with early indications suggesting she is more popular with Tory members ahead of a summer of campaigning.

Mr Sunak - who is committed to his tax plans, promising to reduce contributions when debt is reduced - has argued he could win an election, whereas Ms Truss could not.

How do the pair plan to tackle the cost of living crisis?

The pair will try to win over the support of local politicians on Thursday when they take part in a private hustings for the Conservative Councillors’ Association.

They will then tour the UK to take part in 12 hustings for the Tory members who will vote for their next leader.

Mr Sunak argued that his rival would not be able to beat Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at a general election.

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will go head to head for the Tory leadership after Penny Mordaunt was eliminated Credit: UK Parliament/PA

“I’m confident that we can do that and we’ve got a really positive message to take out to all our members now – crucially, who is the best person to beat Keir Starmer and the Labour Party at the next election?” he said.

“I believe I’m the only candidate who can do that.”

Later writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Sunak tried to dial down the bitter attacks that have dogged the Westminster leg of the contest, saying Ms Truss is someone “I like and respect”.

He insisted he “will govern as a Thatcherite” after facing repeated criticism from the Tory right for wanting to hold off on tax cuts until after inflation is under control.

In her pitch in the Daily Mail, Ms Truss vowed to “hit the ground running by immediately cutting taxes, growing our economy and unleashing the potential of everyone”.

And she attacked the government’s tax record, which was overseen by Mr Sunak until he resigned, triggering Mr Johnson’s ultimate downfall.

“We have been going in the wrong direction on tax, with the tax burden at its highest in 70 years,” she wrote.

“I am the tax-cutting candidate who will help squeezed families by reversing April’s national insurance rise and suspending the green levy on energy bills.

“I will move to bring in an emergency budget to get on with doing this quickly, and announce a spending review to find more efficiencies in government spending.”

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Boris Johnson has not publicly backed any of the candidates to replace him, but some of his most loyal allies have come out for Ms Truss.

In his final Prime Minister’s Questions, he offered advice to his successor in what appeared to be a swipe at Mr Sunak, his former chancellor.

Mr Johnson said: “Cut taxes and deregulate wherever you can and make this the greatest place to live and invest, which it is.”

He added that the new prime minister should be prepared to ignore their chancellor: “I love the Treasury but remember that if we’d always listened to the Treasury we wouldn’t have built the M25 or the Channel Tunnel.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...