The two candidates vying to become the UK’s next prime minister continued to court voters on Monday in the second of the 12 local hustings as ballots started to drop in the letterboxes of Conservative grassroots members.
Liz Truss was backed by Penny Mordaunt, the last of the eight initial candidates to be eliminated from the race, during the event in Exeter, southwest England; while Rishi Sunak was accompanied by former minister Liam Fox. He was also endorsed earlier on Monday by former Conservative Party leader William Hague.
The two candidates battled over their tax policies, the dominating topic of the race, but they also answered questions in areas that were less addressed in earlier debates.
Farms ‘Shouldn’t Be Full of Solar Panels’
In her opening speech, Truss spoke of cutting red tape for farmers.
“Farmers should be getting on with farming, not having to fill in forms, not having to comply with all kinds of rules and regulations,” the foreign secretary said, adding that the British fields “should be full of our fantastic produce” instead of being “full of solar panels.”
Truss said she will change the rules to make sure agricultural land is used for farming, and negotiate for full control over the UK’s fishing waters.
Her comments were later echoed by Sunak, who said he wants to make sure the government “understands the needs of rural communities.”
“And that means making sure our fields are used for food production and not solar panels. It means prioritising our fishing communities, it means backing our farmers and food security,” the former chancellor said.
Truss also said she would “rip up the Treasury investment rules” on the benefit cost ratio of projects “to help those communities with the worst infrastructure first,” arguing the rules “essentially” mean that “if you already have a lot of infrastructure and capital, you get more.”
Challenged that Sunak had already “ripped up the green book a couple of years ago,” Truss said she had not “seen any change in the last two and a half years.”
On the UK government’s pledge to reach “net-zero” by 2050, both previously committed to the target. They both support fracking with the consent of local communities.
Truss said she will pass primary legislation to expedite the planning process for fracking and other infrastructure projects and “move forward faster” with major nuclear stations and small modular reactors.
She also wants to move away from the E.U.’s habitat directive in favour of a stronger British biodiversity target.
Sunak previously pledged to keep the ban on building new onshore wind farms, but wants to introduce a legal target to make Britain energy self-sufficient by 2045 by overseeing a massive expansion in offshore turbines.
Truss: ‘No’ to Another Lockdown
Asked if she would “ever authorize another lockdown,” Truss replied: “No.”
Both candidates were government ministers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but neither Truss nor Sunak spoke out against the government’s measures.
Pressed on whether she regretted her support for the three lockdowns or privately thought it was a bad idea, Truss said she was in favour of “doing less” at “every single chance” she was given the opportunity to express a view.
“The fact is, I wasn’t part of the key COVID committee, I was the international trade secretary, I was spending my time trying to get all these trade deals done. I wasn’t really a core part of that COVID decision making, and often frankly, it was presented as a fait accompli, as the French would say, to the wider cabinet.”
Defending her public support for the measures, Truss said she respects cabinet collective responsibility and vowed to run a tighter ship if she becomes the prime minister.
“I don’t want people who leak and brief,” she said, alluding to a problem that plagued Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, adding, “I want people who have those discussions internally, and then behave properly externally,” she said.
The same question was not put to Sunak, but he said he tried to stop another lockdown during the Omicron outbreak and is “glad” that the proposed lockdown which “would have needlessly damaged the country” was avoided because of his and others’ objections.
It’s unclear whether Sunak supported the lockdowns during the previous waves of COVID-19 infections.
Breaking Up Treasury?
Asked if she believes the Treasury should be broken up, an idea floated by former candidate Kemi Badenoch, Truss replied: “I wouldn’t want to give them any advance warning if I was gonna do that.”
Truss said she believes the Treasury “needs to change,” calling the department “a block on progress.”
“Why haven’t we got things like Solvency II and MiFID [Markets in Financial Instruments Directive] changed? These are the things that would unleash investment, including into our rural communities in the southwest,” she said, referring to two E.U. directives.
Truss said changing the rules is “partly about challenging not just the Treasury orthodoxy, but the Whitehall orthodoxy and getting things done,” adding: “I’m prepared to break eggs to make the omelet.”
Truss pledged again to reverse the tax increase in April in national insurance and put a temporary moratorium on the green Levy if she becomes the prime minister. She also said she would scrap the planned rise in corporation tax and would like to see “low tax investment zones.”
She previously argued that Sunak’s tax policy would drive the UK into recession and said she would fund the tax cuts by spreading the debt accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic over a longer period, while Sunak said Truss’s plan will stoke inflation.
Asked how she would fund her promises, Truss argued that a higher tax rate would “throttle off growth” and reduce revenue.
Defending her plan to pay off pandemic debt over a longer term, Truss said the UK didn’t decide to balance the books “the next week” after World War Two.
Sunak said last week that he would temporarily scrap VAT on energy bills from October if the price cap rises above £3,000. He also announced on Monday that he plans to reduce the basic rate of income tax by 4 percent by 2029.
Put to him that he wasn’t talking about tax cuts at “the beginning of this campaign,” Sunak deflected the question, saying the race was “just getting started.”
He later defended his plan to raise corporation tax, saying the new rate is still the most competitive among the Group of Seven countries and one of the most competitive among the Group of 20 countries, and the tax hike will not hit “genuinely small- and medium-sized businesses” which he said are “70 percent of registered British companies.”
Sunak said he will cut the taxes on business investment, arguing low corporation tax had “won absolutely zilch for investment in our economy.”
Truss: Move Press Office Out of Downing Street
Alluding to polling results that suggested Sunak has an edge over Truss among swing voters, Sunak said he “passionately” believes that he’s the Tories’ “best opportunity” of beating Labour.
Asked about the polls, Truss said successive prime ministers had worried too much about polls and focus groups and that she will win by delivering her promises.
She said she would show her priorities by reversing a move by Alastair Campbell, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, and move the chief whip back to 12 Downing Street while moving the press office out.
“My priority is delivering what the public have voted for, in line with our conservative values of rewarding people who work hard, who do the right thing, set up businesses. Those are the people that I am working for, not the press, not the pollsters, not the media,” Truss said.