Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak went head to head on Thursday night at a members' hustings in Cheltenham, hosted by The Telegraph's Camilla Tominey.
The final two candidates were grilled on pivotal topics, from tax cuts and reforms to the economy, that will shape party members’ decisions - and Britain’s future.
With six official hustings down and six more to go, read our writers' verdicts, below, on who gained an advantage in the increasingly bitter race for No 10.
Janet Daley: Opening statement went to Rishi who was rather manically charismatic but charming
The substantive disagreement came through as clearly as I have ever heard it. Rishi believes that inflation is the greatest danger and that our primary obligation is to pay down the national debt to create a sound economy.
Liz insists that the more serious threat is impending recession which would be made more likely by increasing taxes which would depress investment and entrepreneurialism. That’s it. This was an argument about strategy rather than outcome.
Apart from that, their philosophies and values were remarkably similar. They are both sincere in their commitment to post-Thatcher Conservative values which they defined in almost identical ways: pride in the country and its values, the importance of education in providing opportunity and equality and, above all, creating the possibility for aspiration and social mobility. For all the supposed acrimony in this contest, they could certainly serve in each other’s Cabinets.
As for performance, there was quite a notable difference in their ability to exploit the two different platforms. The opening statement went to Rishi who was rather manically charismatic but charming, where Liz looked uncomfortable and stiff.
But in the conversational mode with Camilla Tominey, Liz came through as relatable and convincingly thoughtful. She looked much happier talking to a person than to a large audience. Rishi seemed perfectly at home with a crowd, turning round repeatedly to make sure to address the whole room. It made him appear confident - perhaps too much so.
There was something of the conceited sixth former about him - as there has been all along.
Tim Stanley: Rishi still looks like the frontrunner. He’s got the best ad, energy and endorsers
Liz Truss’s debating style improves with leaps and bounds. When the leadership race started - it feels like sometime in the 11th century - she was cruelly mocked for appearing to cling to an invisible tea tray.
Well, I’m pleased to say that the tray has now shrunk to the size of a small bucket, which she holds waist high as she extols the virtues of freedom and corn. Fields that should be stuffed with wheat, she said, are now planted with solar panels - and “it’s one of the most depressing sights in Britain".
Oh, I can think of far worse. Such as an email from British Gas.
The curious thing is that Rishi still looks like the frontrunner. He’s got the best ad, energy and endorsers: Hague, Lilley, Lawson and the ghost of Lord Salisbury. But it’s Liz who with every appearance gets more interesting. No election before 2024, she said; no windfall taxes because profit is a good thing. And what do you think of the press?, asked our own Camilla Tominey, after Truss had scolded Tom Newton Dunn for asking “Lefty questions”.
"Your questions are sounder," replied the candidate, which suggests possession by the ghost of Margaret Thatcher - though she didn’t like being asked if she’s deliberately copying her. Why don’t you ask Rishi if he’s imitating Ted Heath?, she shot back. The answer is that no one is that rude.
For my money, the winner of this one was The Telegraph, because it had the best presenter thus far. Camilla for PM.
Ross Clark: The audience is more interested in what Truss has to say
We are only halfway through the Conservative leadership contest, but already we have heard many of the candidates’ arguments a hundred times. We know Liz Truss is in favour of immediate tax cuts, Rishi Sunak wants to pay off debt more quickly. It is the small changes of emphasis which are telling.
While Truss is developing her policies, Rishi Sunak is trying to address head-on the weaknesses which he fears are costing him the chance of becoming Prime Minister.
His pitch in Cheltenham centered on the assertion that he was the candidate best-placed to beat Keir Starmer while he also attempted to press his claim to be the Brexit candidate. He couldn’t understand, he told us, why he was perceived not to be ‘Brexity’ enough. Both claims fell flat. No-one clapped or cheered when he tried to establish his Brexit credentials.
Moreover, Sunak’s strongest suit – his warmth as a public speaker – no longer seemed quite the asset it was in earlier debates. He tried to up the tempo – with the result that he began to lose gravitas.
It is easy to understand why he is beginning to sound a little desperate. Around a third of Conservative members are thought already to have voted. Beyond this week, it is going to be extremely difficult for either candidate to swing the result, however well they perform in the hustings.
For her part, Truss concentrated on trying to resolve the policy weaknesses which led, for example, to last week’s embarrassment over regional pay boards. It was a strategy that seemed to pay off in Cheltenham. She came across as someone who is thinking carefully on policy – even though she is still lacking many answers.
Her biggest weakness was failing to answer what immediate steps she would take to help people with energy bills over the next few months; she sketched over the issue and rushed ahead onto longer-term policies such as fracking – which might be right but are not going to help people over the next few months.
In the one-to-one section of the hustings it became clear that Rishi’s team is better at filling to front rows of these events with his own cheering supporters. But you sense that the rest of the audience are more interested in what Truss has to say, because she remains by far the most likely victor.
Patrick O'Flynn: Sunak needed a knockout blow to revive his chances and he came nowhere near
Not a vote has yet been counted in the Conservative leadership ballot and yet nobody watching The Telegraph hustings in Cheltenham last night could have thought the two candidates were on an equal footing.
One of them, Liz Truss, was authoritative yet rather cautious, carrying the aura of a prime minister-in-waiting and clearly concerned, as the old analogy has it, to carry the Ming vase across the crowded room without dropping it.
The other, Rishi Sunak, bounded on to the stage with a fizzing, almost manic energy. Maybe not quite the comeback kid, but desperately trying to be the catch-up kid.
The audience of 2,000 south west Tory members initially seemed stacked for Sunak, responding to his theatrical performance with more enthusiasm. A clique of them had hogged the seats in line of the main TV camera and waved their “Ready For Rishi” banners at every opportunity.
And yet Truss did just fine, especially during her grilling by The Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey when describing her political journey from growing up in a Left-wing family to becoming the doyenne of the Tory Right. When asked about comparisons between her and Margaret Thatcher she mischievously suggested that Rishi Sunak should be asked whether he could be compared to Ted Heath.
Her pledge about bringing back a special unit in CCHQ to mastermind a fightback against the Yellow Peril – the Lib Dems, with whom she enjoyed a youthful infatuation – may not have raised the roof but certainly had the wise owls in the crowd nodding sagely. Her claim that she could best beat the Liberals because she knew all about their old tricks was stretching things a bit, but then so was Sunak’s attempt to be passionate about having funded “the dualling of the A417”.
If this were a knife-edge contest then Sunak’s slick display and his whooping fans could have conjured the illusion of him being the candidate with most momentum. And fair play to him for insisting again that he will not quit the contest prematurely. But he is so far behind on points that he would have needed a knockout blow to revive his chances and he came nowhere near that.
Just six more hustings to go and that Ming vase is getting ever closer to the safety of the sideboard.
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