Conservative leadership contender Rishi Sunak has said he is ready to deploy new cash support worth “a few billion pounds” to help households struggling with soaring energy bills if he becomes prime minister.
The former chancellor said the additional money would be split between pensioners, benefit claimants and the disabled, as well as universal payments for all households, but refused to say how much each would receive.
Mr Sunak’s promise goes well beyond the offer of rival Liz Truss, who today said she would “do all I can to help struggling households” but stopped short of committing to direct payments to the most vulnerable.
But it falls far short of the £15bn-plus which anti-poverty charities and experts told The Independent earlier this week was needed to deal with the threat of searing hardship this winter, with typical bills expected to rise from £1,971 now to £3,500 in October and £4,200 in January.
Subjected to a TV grilling by the BBC’s Nick Robinson, Mr Sunak said he felt a “moral responsibility” to respond to changed circumstances since he announced an earlier cost-of-living package worth £15bn in May, at a time when the October rise was expected to take average annual bills to £2,800.
In a swipe at Ms Truss, who says she will focus on tax cuts rather than “handouts”, he said that any plan which was not centred on getting help to those most in need was not “the moral thing to do”.
And he suggested that her promises of £30bn of tax cuts were phoney, telling Robinson: “I would rather lose, having fought for the things that I passionately believe are right for our country, and being true to my values, than win on a false promise.”
Challenged by Robinson over whether he anticipates increasing the size of his bailout by “a few billion pounds (or) over £10bn”, he replied: “Much closer to the former than the latter … because that’s the scale of the problem we’re talking about”.
While his previous measures were designed to deal with a predicted rise of about £1,000 in the energy price cap, the level was now thought likely to go up by a further £400, he said, adding: “That gives you a sense of the scale of what we’re talking about extra.”
Sunak’s team accused Ms Truss of “a major U-turn on the biggest issue currently facing the country” earlier in the day, when she backed away from her earlier refusal to consider “handouts” for those unable to pay their gas and electricity bills.
Ms Truss said: “As a Conservative I am clear that our first port of call should always be to let people keep more of their own money.
“I understand how difficult the rising cost of living is making life for many, and if elected I will do all that I can to help struggling households.
“As it stands we are hurtling towards a recession. If we don’t get our economy growing we won’t be able to help anyone. That’s why I have a bold plan to cut taxes, for individuals and businesses, to turbocharge our economy, grow the size of the pie and increase prosperity for everyone.”
A Sunak aide responded: “It’s all very well offering empty words about ‘doing all you can’, but there aren’t lots of different ways to act on this. Taking action means providing direct support, which Truss had previously dismissed as ‘handouts’.
“Twice now, Truss has made a serious moral and political misjudgement on a policy affecting millions of people, after last week reversing plans to cut the pay of teachers and the armed forces outside London. Mistakes like this in government would cost the Conservative Party the next general election.”
In another vicious “blue-on-blue” attack on the former chancellor, a Truss team spokesperson retorted: “Rishi Sunak wouldn’t know how people benefit from a tax cut because he has never cut a tax in his life. People didn’t vote for the Conservative Party to be subjected to old-fashioned Gordon Brown style politics of envy.
“You cannot tax your way to growth and Liz’s agenda is to build a high-wage, high-growth, low-tax economy that supports people. Liz believes in people keeping more of their own money, not Rishi’s socialist tax and spend which will lead us to recession.”
Ms Truss has so far refused to be interviewed by Robinson for the BBC series entitled Our Next Prime Minister: The Interviews.
After questioning Mr Sunak for 30 minutes, the former BBC political editor said: “We did invite Liz Truss, the other candidate in this contest to do an interview about her plans if she becomes our next prime minister.
“So far, she hasn’t been able to find a time or a date to do it. The invitation, of course, remains open. We’re told she’s still considering it.”
Mr Sunak told Robinson he wanted to “put integrity and honesty at the heart of how I run government and how I want to be prime minister”.
In an acknowledgement of his underdog status, he said: “As you can see in this leadership contest I’ve been doing that, I haven’t been saying the easy things, and actually I’m prepared to lose this contest if it means that I’ve been true to my values and I’m fighting for the things that I think are right for this country.
“I’d rather lose on those terms than win by promising false things that I can’t deliver.
“I knew what I was doing when I got into this. I was going to tell people what I think they needed to hear, not necessarily what they wanted to hear. As I said, I would rather lose, having fought for the things that I passionately believe are right for our country, and being true to my values, than win on a false promise.”