The candidates for the Conservative leadership are preparing for their first TV head-to-head debate, which could play a decisive role in determining who succeeds Boris Johnson as prime minister.
With many of the 160,000 Tory members likely to vote as soon as ballot papers arrive next week, the BBC showdown at 9pm on Monday could be the only real chance for Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to make their pitch direct to those determining their fate.
The pair will clash over tax and immigration, but Labour insisted they should be grilled on how they would fund their “fantasy economics” plans, whether they would abolish non-dom status and how they would help families facing a £1,000 leap in energy bills this autumn.
Ms Truss’s plans for £30bn of immediate tax cuts, funded from borrowing, came under renewed scrutiny after three members of Margaret Thatcher’s last cabinet – Chris Patten, Norman Lamont and Sir Malcolm Rifkind – said that the “Iron Lady” would not have approved of them.
On the eve of the debate, Ms Truss set out proposals for a network of “full-fat freeports”, offering tax breaks, light-touch planning rules and scaled-back regulation in the hope of attracting investment and growth.
And Mr Sunak took a tough line on China, branding the east Asian country “the biggest long-term threat to Britain” and declaring he would ban its Confucius Institute cultural centres from the UK.
The weekend saw an increasingly bitter clash over immigration, as each pitched to the right in the hope of picking up votes from the Tory “selectorate” who will choose the country’s PM and who, according to polls, have a significantly more hostile attitude to migrants than the population at large.
Mr Sunak’s plans to house asylum seekers on detention ships off the coast of the UK and to withhold aid from developing countries that do not take back nationals who are denied the right to stay were branded “cruel” by Oxfam and “beyond the pale” by Christian Aid.
And Truss allies said the proposal to house migrants on cruise ships rather than in hotels would breach domestic and international law, effectively creating a chain of prison ships in areas trying to attract tourists.
Ms Truss said she would seek to sign up more countries to Rwanda-style agreements to accept asylum seekers deported from the UK, despite the fact that the scheme has cost £120m and failed to remove a single migrant since its introduction in April.
The foreign secretary said that her proposal for “designated investment zones” would unleash growth and innovation in areas right across the UK, attracting hi-tech industries such as AI. They also represent a swipe at Mr Sunak’s scheme for freeports, which she said gave Whitehall the power to pick winners and losers.
Under the scheme, the government would work with local communities to identify sites ripe for redevelopment, with a preference for previously developed “brownfield” sites.
She said that the scheme would be a cornerstone of her economic strategy and would help create new model towns like those of Bournville and Saltaire, the workers’ villages established by philanthropist businessmen in the Victorian era.
But her plan to pare back planning restrictions and regulation will raise concerns about poor-quality development and environmental damage, as well as the possibility of business simply being poached away from areas outside the zones.
Ms Truss said: “As prime minister, I will be laser-focused on turbocharging business investment and delivering the economic growth our country desperately needs.
“We can’t carry on allowing Whitehall to pick the winners and losers, like we’ve seen with the current freeport model. Instead, by creating these new investment zones we will finally prove to businesses that we’re committed to their futures and incentivise them to stimulate the investment that will help deliver for hardworking people.”
Mr Sunak promised a major hardening of government policy on China, seeking to outflank Ms Truss’s own confrontational stance towards Beijing as foreign secretary.
The former chancellor said he would close all 30 Confucius Institutes in the UK, which critics have labelled propaganda tools at a time of worsening relations between China and the West.
Mr Sunak accused China of “stealing our technology and infiltrating our universities” as well as bullying Taiwan and breaching the human rights of people in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
He said he would review all UK-China research partnerships and expand MI5’s reach to counter Chinese industrial espionage. And he would require all British universities to disclose any foreign funding partnerships worth more than £50,000.
“I will stop China taking over our universities, and get British companies and public institutions the cybersecurity they need,” said Sunak. And I will work with president Biden and other world leaders to transform the West’s resilience to the threat China poses.”
Truss supporter Sir Iain Duncan Smith, co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, branded the former chancellor’s tough stance towards Beijing “surprising”.
“After all, over the last two years, the Treasury has pushed hard for an economic deal with China,” he said. “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 Uighurs 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.”
With polls giving Ms Truss a comfortable lead among Tory members, Sunak supporters are aware that their favourite will have to make a big impact at the BBC debate if he is to preserve his hopes of overhauling his rival and be named PM on 5 September.
The pair pulled out of an earlier leadership debate during the MPs’ rounds of voting amid fears that highly personal “blue-on-blue” attacks were damaging the Conservative brand and making it more difficult for the party to unite under its new leader.
But the live broadcast from Stoke-on-Trent, moderated by newscaster Sophie Raworth and expected to attract millions of viewers, will be the first of a series of televised clashes in the remainder of the campaign, including a second head-to-head on Talk TV on Tuesday.
Labour’s shadow minister without portfolio, Conor McGinn, said the candidates must be subjected to tough questioning, not least on their efforts to distance themselves from the record of the Johnson administration in which they both served.
“Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are two continuity candidates, stooges of the Johnson administration whose fingerprints are all over the state the country finds itself in today,” said Mr McGinn. “Neither offers working people anything other than more of the same.
“Both must now come clean about their plans. Rather than simply trash their own Tory record of the last 12 years or rely on the fantasy economics of unfunded giveaways, both must tonight set out fully costed plans to tackle the Tory cost of living crisis and grow Britain’s economy.”