Rishi Sunak has warned his rival’s cost-of-living plans could put vulnerable people at risk of “real destitution”, as economic policy once again drove a wedge between the Tory leadership hopefuls.
As the pair took to the stage for the latest hustings for party members, the former chancellor claimed that without further direct payments, pensioners and those on very low incomes could face serious hardship.
But Liz Truss stood by her tax-cutting plans, warning against “Gordon Brown economics” where “you take money off people in taxes and give it back in benefits”.
She argued that increasing taxes would “choke off economic growth” and send the country to “penury”.
The Foreign Secretary wants to reverse the national insurance rise and planned hike in corporation tax, both of which were introduced by Mr Sunak as chancellor.
Asked whether she was for or against “handouts”, Ms Truss stressed that her “first preference” has always been to “reduce taxes”.
She previously hinted she would consider further support for struggling households if made prime minister.
With a dire new warning that energy bills could top £5,000 by the spring, the cost-of-living issue continues to dominate the exchanges in the battle to succeed Boris Johnson.
The two contenders faced further questions on the matter during the hustings on Thursday evening.
While Ms Truss stressed she was keen to cut taxes to ease the burden, Mr Sunak warned the country “will never ever forgive us” if the Conservatives do not provide “direct support” to millions of pensioners.
He admitted that the Government will need to offer more help than he previously thought to assist vulnerable people with bills.
And he warned that Ms Truss’s tax plan would not help pensioners and people on “very low incomes”.
“No tax cut, and Liz’s tax plan, is not going to help those groups of people,” he said.
“So scrapping the health and social care levy, as she wants to do, is worth £1,700 to her on her salary.
“For someone working really hard on the national living wage, it’s worth just over a quid a week. And for someone who’s a pensioner, without any earnings, it’s worth zero.
“Now I want to provide direct support to those groups of people.”
He said it would be a “moral failure” not to do this, suggesting Ms Truss’s vision could put people at risk of serious hardship.
“If you support a plan that Liz is suggesting, which says she doesn’t believe in doing that, doesn’t believe in providing direct financial support to those groups of people… we are going to, as a Conservative Government, leave millions of incredibly vulnerable people at the risk of real destitution,” he said.
Mr Sunak also said he was “nervous” about the prospect of Ms Truss scrapping the Bank of England’s independence.
Attorney General Suella Braverman, a supporter of the Foreign Secretary, previously said Ms Truss had “made clear that she wants to review” the Bank’s mandate.
“So that’s going to be looking in detail at exactly what the Bank of England does and see whether it’s actually fit for purpose in terms of its entire exclusionary independence over interest rates,” she said.
The former chancellor said at Thursday’s hustings: “I’m very nervous about things I hear elsewhere; about people who seem to think that from Liz’s camp and her that we should scrap Bank of England independence.
“I think that would be a massive mistake for our country and international investors would not look very highly on it at all.”
Quizzed on the billions of profit made by energy giants, Ms Truss said she would ensure companies in an oligopoly were held to account.
But she insisted that profit is not a “dirty word”, and argued that it being treated as such is “a massive problem”.
She also said she would “absolutely” not support a windfall tax, claiming it is a “Labour idea”.
“It’s all about bashing business, and it sends the wrong message to international investors and to the public,” she said.
Separately, Ms Truss resisted suggestions she might be modelling herself on former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, insisting: “I am my own person.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive fan of Mrs Thatcher, but we live in different times,” she said.
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