Truss and Sunak trade blows on immigration and China ahead of TV debate

Credit: PA

The two Tory leadership hopefuls have been engaged in bitter clashes over immigration, China and tax cuts ahead of a crunch TV debate on Monday evening.

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will enter the first head-to-head TV debate on the BBC on Monday after a weekend that saw both camps trade increasingly personal attacks.

The campaigns to replace Boris Johnson have mostly focused on economic policy, with Ms Truss promising to cut taxes immediately if she wins and Mr Sunak insisting he'd do the same, but only once debt had been cut and spending reduced.

They've also committed to cut immigration, but in different ways, with Ms Truss saying she would extend the Rwanda deportation policy to deter illegal entry to the UK and Mr Sunak wanting to cap refugee numbers.

Mr Sunak also took aim at China, warning that the country represents the “biggest-long term threat to Britain” but allies of Ms Truss questioned why he'd not spoken out more on the issue previously.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the leadership contenders are "part of the problem" and their answers to fix UK issues are "too small".

He delivered a speech on Monday morning, saying there is a clear contrast between his plan and the "Thatcherite cosplay on display tonight" in the BBC's Tory leadership debate.

He said: "People want a fresh start for Britain. They want the opportunity to get on. And above all they want to be free from the insecurity of the cost-of-living crisis."

He added: "What we're seeing from the leadership contest is two individuals who are part of the problem.

"We've had 12 years now of stagnation, they have voted for every one of those 15 tax rises and now they're trying to distance themselves as quickly as possible from it. Their answers, if you like, are too small for our country, for the challenge that we face."

In a hardening of tone against China, Mr Sunak promised to close all 30 of the country’s Confucius Institutes in the UK.

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Funded by the Chinese government, they are ostensibly culture and language centres but critics have labelled them propaganda tools amid worsening relations between the West and China.

Mr Sunak accused China of “stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities”, pledging to work with US President Joe Biden to stand up to China at home and abroad.

But those claims were met with scepticism by Truss supporters, with former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith calling the announcement “surprising”.

Sir Iain, the co-chairman of the inter-parliamentary alliance on China, said: “Over the last two years, the Treasury has pushed hard for an economic deal with China. This is despite China sanctioning myself and four UK parliamentarians.

“Despite China brutally cracking down on peaceful democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, illegally occupying the South China Sea, committing genocide on the Uyghurs and increasing its influence in our universities.

“After such a litany, I have one simple question, where have you been over the last two years?”

A spokesperson for Ms Truss said: “Liz has strengthened Britain’s position on China since becoming foreign secretary and helped lead the international response to increased Chinese aggression.

“This will only continue when she becomes prime minister and seeks to expand her network of liberty around the world.”

Mr Sunak also came under pressure from his rival over his strategy to combat illegal migration, as he seeks to win over the Tory grassroots voters who will decide the next Conservative leader.

Calling the current system “broken”, he offered a 10-point plan on Sunday that included a commitment to a narrower definition of who qualifies for asylum compared to that from the ECHR, with enhanced powers to detain, tag and monitor illegal migrants.

Mr Sunak, who was on the campaign trail on Sunday, also promised to give Parliament control over who comes to the UK by creating an annual cap on the number of refugees accepted each year, albeit one that can be changed in the case of sudden emergencies.

But those proposals were picked apart by Truss allies, who raised questions about Mr Sunak’s proposals, arguing that it was unclear how the refugee quota would work and suggesting that some of his plans amounted to a “rebrand”.

Allies of Ms Truss also queried a suggestion from Mr Sunak that illegal migrants could be housed on cruise ships, something the Truss camp suggested would amount to arbitrary detention and a breach of both domestic and international law.

Mr Sunak sought to defend his proposals on Sunday afternoon, telling the BBC that tackling illegal migration was a “priority” for him and that “no options should be off the table”.

But he was unable to give a clear assurance that his policy proposals would be legal.

“What we do need to do is be very honest about the challenges that the ECHR, these European laws, have on our ability to grapple with this problem.

The Truss campaign had said that as prime minister she would increase the UK’s frontline Border Force by 20% and double the Border Force Maritime staffing levels, with Ms Truss claiming that her plan to tackle illegal migration would be given a strong legal foundation by the new UK Bill of Rights.

The plans from both candidates generated anger in some quarters, with Oxfam labelling as “cruel” any plan to link UK aid payments to countries’ co-operation with immigration removals and Amnesty International saying that making policy only to please Tory members has caused “chaos and backlogs”.

Elsewhere, Ms Truss unveiled plans to boost UK growth rates with “full-fat freeports”, a move that may be seen as a bid to steal a march on Mr Sunak, who has been an advocate of free ports since his days as a backbench MP.

Pitched as the cornerstone of her tax-cutting economic vision, the Truss campaign said that the plans would see brownfield sites and other locations turned into “investment zones”.