Liz Truss has vowed to bring in an emergency budget to cut taxes, as the new favourite in the Tory leadership favourite criticised Rishi Sunak’s record as chancellor.
The foreign secretary said Mr Sunak had pushed Britain in the “wrong direction” on taxation, and she would swiftly axe his National Insurance rise if she becomes prime minister.
Mr Sunak has made his own pitch to win over the membership who will crown the winner by arguing he was the “only one” who could beat Keir Starmer’s Labour party and win an election.
He also 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.
Tory MPs chose the final two candidates to enter the run-off stage decided by Tory members, as trade minister Penny Mordaunt was eliminated when she came third behind Ms Truss by eight votes.
Mr Sunak won 137 votes to Ms Truss’s 113. But bookmakers make the foreign secretary the the frontrunner, with early indications suggesting she is more popular with Tory members.
The pair will try to win over the support of local politicians on Thursday morning 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, with the result being announced on 5 September.
Mr Sunak claimed Ms Truss would not be able to win a general election. “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.”
Mr Sunak – who has warned against “fairytale” promises – will reportedly set out plans to cut taxes in the “medium term” after inflation begins to fall.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Sunak insisted he “will govern as a Thatcherite” but 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”.
But in a sign the “blue on blue” attacks would remain, Sunak backer Robert Jenrick pointedly said that his candidate was “never a member of the Lib Dems” – a reference to the former party allegiance of Ms Truss.
Mr Jenrick, the former housing minister who will be hoping for a return to cabinet, also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is the antithesis of Thatcherism to be going around making unfunded tax pledges merely to win a leadership contest.”
In her own 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 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.”
Tory polling guru Lord Hayward said he “genuinely” couldn’t call the race. “At the moment there is no question Liz Truss is the favourite,” he told Sky News. “But those polls [of members] have fluctuated quite dramatically.
He added: “That says there a lot of people out there who haven’t decided, who haven’t got firm views one way or another.”
Boris Johnson has not publicly backed any of the candidates to replace him, but his most loyal allies have come out for Ms Truss. And in his final PMQs, he took 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.”
Former No 10 strategist Dominic Cummings claimed the PM quietly supported Truss’ campaign because he “knows she’s mad and thinks she’ll blow and he can make a comeback”.
Cummings said his former boss’s immediate priority was stopping Sunak. But he added: “He knows Truss is mad as a box of snakes and is thinking, ‘There’s a chance she blows, there’s another contest and I can return’.”