Sunak and Truss rule out freezing energy prices at leadership hustings | Conservative leadership

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Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have ruled out freezing energy prices by claiming it would be an expensive, short-term fix that would fail to solve the underlying problem with soaring energy costs.

The Conservative leadership contenders were questioned on whether they would back Labour’s new strategy to fix the domestic energy cap during a leadership hustings in Perth on Tuesday night.

Truss, the favourite to win the contest, won applause when she said the best strategy to combat rising prices would be to lift the green levy on bills, greatly increase the UK’s gas production in the North Sea and to reverse the recent rise in national insurance rates.

Questioned on whether she should heed a poll in the Times showing two thirds of Tory voters backed Labour’s plans, she said: “What I worry about is putting a sticking plaster on this to say we will find the money but be in the same situation in six months’ time.”

The problem will not go away by then, she said, because Vladimir Putin was unlikely to be defeated in Ukraine that soon. “What’s not right is throwing money at the problem without dealing with the root cause,” she added.

Sunak said it was far more prudent to target help at pensioners and those on the lowest incomes. “What I will not do is follow policies that risk increasing inflation – especially if it amounts to borrowing £50bn – and put it on the country’s credit card. That’s not right, it’s not responsible and it’s certainly not Conservative,” he said.

Both contenders won applause from the Tory members present, a large majority of whom said at the start of the event they had not yet voted in the contest, by firmly ruling out supporting a second Scottish independence referendum.

Sunak agreed the UK was a union built on “consent and democracy” but added: “It’s quite frankly barmy for politicians to focus on a divisive referendum when we’re in a cost of living crisis.”

To loud applause, Truss reminded members she had been to primary school in the Scottish city of Paisley. “To me, we’re not just neighbours, we’re family and I will never ever let our family be split up,” she said.

The buildup to the hustings was dominated by questions over whether Truss was right earlier in the campaign to dismiss Scotland’s first minister by saying she should be “ignored”.

Senior figures in both camps agree it was a misstep. It suggested Truss, the clear favourite to win, had adopted a “muscular unionism” approach to Sturgeon’s nationalist government. It undermined a subtler strategy devised by Michael Gove to promote the union quietly, by putting UK government money into roads, community projects and infrastructure, sidestepping the devolved Scottish government by working directly with councils.

A Sunak ally said Truss’s remarks, and her disastrous suggestion that public sector pay rates could be cut in northern regions, alienated Tory councillors in his constituency, who had switched support from Truss to the former chancellor.

More seriously, he said, her remarks in Exeter showed a “deep misunderstanding” of the need to persuade moderate unionists and uncommitted yes voters to support the union in a future referendum.

“She’s probably going to win this [so] why did she pander to that extreme position when it’s going to create further difficulties for her down the line? Just say: ‘I need to be a stateswoman’ instead of throwing red meat to the ultras,” he said.

Truss supporters in Scotland acknowledge they have advised her to adopt a less belligerent tone against Sturgeon: they insist Truss will follow Gove’s softly-softly strategy. “To me it was just a throwaway line at a hustings for a party audience,” said one ally. “I don’t believe we will see a major shift in approach to Scotland. The emphasis will be on raising the profile of the UK government and on direct investment, which I think is very clever politics.”

Despite the steady leaching away of support elsewhere in Scotland during Johnson’s leadership – losing seven of their 13 Westminster seats in the 2019 general election – the Tories held on in much of the north-east, retaining many more Holyrood seats in the region in 2021.

Sunak visited Inverurie and was reportedly due to have an off-camera visit to meet fishers; Truss went to “tap a barrel” at a whisky distillery in Elgin, before holding a private party event in Aberdeen.

Both candidates announced plans to strengthen parliamentary accountability over the Scottish government. Sunak said Scotland’s permanent secretary should be required to appear before MPs in London; Truss said MSPs would be given parliamentary privilege similar to the legal immunity for MPs, to allow them to more robustly challenge Scottish ministers.

The whisky visit has symbolic resonance for Truss. Her gaffe in Exeter aside, her supporters argue she has a proven track-record of investing in Scotland: at the Department for International Trade and then the Foreign Office Truss increased the civil service presence in Scotland, and helped broker a cut in US import tariffs on Scotch whisky.

John Lamont MP, the coordinator of Sunak’s Scottish campaign, said the former chancellor’s appeal went far wider than civil servants and distillers. He was “quick-footed” on delivering the furlough and business support during the pandemic; that helped everyone. “With the cost of living crisis, he gets and understands what’s required,” Lamont said.

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