There was no shortage of warnings. Concerned Tories had expressed fears that the struggle to succeed Boris Johnson was beginning to turn into a destructive battle – with dire consequences for the party.
After the two “finalists” in this battle had already attacked one another in the preliminary rounds, they should for goodness’ sake exercise restraint in their first televised duel, appealed, for example, to the former party secretary of the British Conservatives, Lord Maude.
Maude’s warning, however, fell on deaf ears. When Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak arrived for the BBC debate in Stoke-on-Trent, northern England, on Monday night and presented themselves to the audience with frosty smiles, the animosity was palpable.
As soon as the first questions were asked, both candidates began to beat each other up. Sunak, unusually aggressive, didn’t even let Truss speak at times. She retaliated with pointed remarks about her rival’s lack of managerial qualifications.
In the hour that followed, the two of them quarreled over the sharp rise in the cost of living, the threatening climate change, Brexit and relations with Russia and China – even where there was little that separated them programmatically.
The debate became particularly heated in the financial and economic sectors, especially over the question of whether to wait with tax cuts (which is Sunak’s plan) or whether (as Truss wants) to cut taxes everywhere immediately.
The ex-finance minister accused the foreign minister of literally immoral behavior because with her policy she wanted to “pass on huge national debts to our children and grandchildren”. Truss hit back: For the past two and a half years there has been no economic growth strategy at all in the Treasury.
Sunak accused “Liz” of telling “fairy tales” to the nation. Her own advisors had explained to her that her calculations would not add up. Truss replied that “Rishi” was “not speaking the truth”. Because of him, the country is suffering from the highest taxes in 70 years. Given the fierceness of the argument, some commentators said it was “hard to believe they’re both in the same party.”
In the hours leading up to the debate, Liz Truss’ election worker Nadine Dorries, who is also Minister of Culture, mocked multi-millionaire Rishi Sunak for his expensive suits and shoes. After the debate, a spokesman for the Times’ Truss team candidly declared that Sunak was “completely unsuitable” for the post of British Prime Minister.
It was clear that the battle would be bitter. While Sunak is the faction’s favorite and thus made it to the finals with the best result, Truss is popular with the party base according to all polls. And the approximately 160,000 Tory members decide by postal vote whether Sunak or Truss will move into number 10 Downing Street on September 5th.
In order to convince themselves, both candidates now have to travel the country together for weeks – from appointment to appointment, from duel to duel. The ballot papers will be sent to those entitled to vote next week.
Because the Tory base is politically much further to the right compared to the general population, Sunak and Truss try to outdo each other with ideas, for example when it comes to deporting “illegal migrants” to distant countries. Meanwhile, Lord Maude moans, the whole thing already “looks like a competition to see who sounds more right-wing conservative – as if nothing else matters”.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer, leader of the Labor Party, just shook his head. “I watched the show until it got too much,” he said. It was unbearable “how the rivals tore each other” and “how people talked about clothes instead of health care”. “If there was ever an example of a party that completely lost its bearings and lost all sense of purpose,” it was this TV duel.