Truss v Sunak: how do Tory PM contenders differ on policy?

·9 min read

Either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will become the next prime minister after Tory MPs put them into the final round of the Conservative leadership election. Here we look at how they differ on key areas of policy.

Economy and cost of living

Liz Truss has said her “first port of call” – for the economy and help with energy bills – will be tax cuts. She has pledged to reverse the recent national insurance rate rise, which was designed to fund health and social care, to be paid for by fiscal headroom and a delay to paying off debt accrued during the Covid pandemic.

Truss has not ruled out specific help for energy bills, while refusing to set out what this may involve, beyond a suspension of green levies, costing about £150 a year on the average bill. She has more generally said she dislikes “handouts” and prefers people to keep more of their own money.

A tax cuts-based economic policy would disproportionately help those who are better off and do nothing for pensioners or those out of work. But Truss has insisted her plan for a low tax, low regulation approach would boost economic growth and help everyone in the longer term.

Rishi Sunak has promised “a return to traditional Conservative economic values”, a position seen variously as an appeal to instinctive Tory fiscal prudence, or a desire to return to “austerity economics”. When challenged with claims he was a “high-tax chancellor”, he took aim at other candidates offering “comforting fairytales” rather than face the hard economic reality. He has said he aims to cut taxes but wants to tackle inflation first.

However, later in the race to No 10, he promised to scrap VAT on household fuel bills for a year. The handout would be worth £160 for every household.

Sunak has also promised to lower taxes by 20% by the end of the decade, more specifically that he would cut the basic rate of income tax to 16p if the Conservatives are re-elected in 2024.

Climate

Truss has committed to maintaining the government’s legally binding goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, but has said she would suspend green energy levies.

She is backed by the energy secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, who is relatively strong on renewable energy, and another backer, Vicky Ford, says she was very supportive of Cop26.

Sunak would set a new legal target for the UK to be energy independent by 2045 at the latest and has committed to maintaining the government’s legally binding goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and has assured the Tories’ green wing he would protect the environment.

Insiders say Sunak was resistant to spending money on climate measures when he ran the Treasury. He has, however, previously spoken out in support of net zero and made the case for a greener economy.

Education

Truss has bemoaned the quality of the state school she attended, which critics swiftly pointed out occurred under Conservative governments, and has promised to give everyone “the same opportunities” so they are “able to know that the town they are born in has opportunity”.

Truss has also said that every student who achieves three A* grades at A-level should be offered an admissions interview at either Oxford or Cambridge.

Sunak supporters Nick Gibb and Damian Hinds, both of whom have served as ministers in the Department for Education, laid out Sunak’s approach to schooling in a column in the Times. The education system will be “focused on excellence and delivering the skills and knowledge needed for the world of tomorrow”, they wrote. He plans to help the best multi-academy trusts to expand, and fulfil a commitment to establish high-quality post-16 specialist free schools outside London and the south-east.

Related: Sunak would not cut taxes before autumn 2023, in clear divide with Truss

Home affairs

Truss has reportedly said she would attempt to expand the Rwanda removal scheme to countries such as Turkey, and has called it “completely moral”.

She has pledged to bring back national crime targets – committing to a 20% reduction in murders, other violence and burglaries within two years if she became prime minister.

Truss has also promised to crack down on violence against women and girls. Under her plans, a standalone offence to criminalise street harassment would be introduced alongside a national domestic abuse register, which would include coercive and controlling behaviour and financial abuse.

Sunak supports the Rwanda removal scheme, though sources have briefed that he opposed it as chancellor over the £120m cost. He has promised a “crackdown on grooming gangs” and has pledged to create a requirement for all police forces to have a ringfenced child sexual exploitation team.

Levelling up

Truss has also committed to continuing the levelling up agenda but added she would do this in a “Conservative way”. Commentators have suggested this means a focus on tax cuts and deregulation, rather than high spending and investment.

Sunak picked up the endorsement of the Tory Tees valley mayor, Ben Houchen, as well as a host of “red wall” MPs over his levelling up pledges. He has committed to maintaining a cabinet-level secretary of state for levelling up. Houchen said he was encouraged by Sunak’s interest in the levelling up agenda.

The NHS

Truss is expected to give more detailed policy announcements on the NHS, but she has said she is “completely committed” to government promises for NHS spending.

One particular area where she faces questions is how she will find money to pay for and tackle the Covid-related NHS backlog given that she has pledged to reverse the national insurance rise introduced to fund this and other costs.

Sunak is pledging to create a “vaccines style” taskforce dedicated to tackling NHS backlogs. He plans to eliminate one-year waiting times six months earlier than planned by September 2024, and to get overall numbers falling by next year.

He is warning of “privatisation by the back door” as a result of people who are spending money they can’t afford to go private due to the size of waiting lists.

Brexit

Truss has vowed to review all EU laws retained after Brexit by the end of next year, and to scrap or replace those that are deemed to hinder UK growth.

Truss was a remainer in the referendum campaign but has since become a keen convert to Brexit. She has led negotiations with Brussels over subsequent disagreements and is pushing new legislation that would unilaterally rewrite Britain’s post-Brexit commitments to the EU over Northern Ireland.

Sunak came out early for Brexit in the run-up to the referendum. He has reportedly backed proposals on the “Northern Ireland protocol” and, as chancellor, promoted “freeports” around Britain as one way of benefiting from Brexit. He has committed to a bonfire of EU laws that are “getting in the way” of British businesses.

Immigration

Truss’s main pitch is ensuring the removal of some asylum seekers to Rwanda goes ahead, and she has pledged to deliver it by reforming the UK’s relationship with the European convention on human rights. The foreign secretary also wants to increase Border Force capacity by 20%, to increase patrols in the Channel and explore “all possible turnaround tactics”. An overhauled bill of rights would be used to enshrine these in law.

Sunak, despite having served as chancellor for more than two years, has been scathing of the immigration system – calling it broken and chaotic.

He has said the UK does not have control over its borders and so pledged to reduce the number of people granted asylum in the UK by changing the definition of who qualifies for it, allow MPs to set an annual cap on the number of refugees accepted each year and pursue further Rwanda-style removal plans with other countries.

He would also withhold aid from countries that do not receive refused asylum seekers and criminals.

Media

Truss is also believed to support privatisation of Channel 4, although she has yet to publicly make her position clear. The sale of Channel 4 is strongly supported by the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, who is a vocal Truss supporter.

Sunak will proceed with the sale of Channel 4, saying privatisation would help the broadcaster compete with big streaming firms. Plans for privatisation are expected to be ready when parliament returns – under a new prime minister – in the autumn.

Foreign policy and defence

Before the leadership race, Truss set out her vision in May of a more assertive G7, which she wanted to be “more institutionalised” and turned into an “economic Nato” that can defend its members from Chinese economic coercion.

As foreign secretary, she has been at the forefront of Britain’s more hawkish position on Russia, in comparison with Ukraine’s other western allies. She is promising to spend 3% of GDP on defence.

Both candidates have yet to set out any big new foreign policy positions during the campaign, although Sunak will be eager to shore up his credentials in this area and emphasise his G7 role brokering a minimum global corporation tax rate.

Having lived and worked in the US, Sunak is regarded as a committed Atlanticist and Eurosceptic. In terms of defence spending, Sunak has expressed opposition to “arbitrary targets”.

Scotland

Truss, when asked if she would agree to a request for a second Scottish independence referendum under any circumstances, said this week: “No.”

She added: “The last referendum in 2014 was described as a once-in-a-generation referendum. We’re now in 2022 – that is not a generation ago.”

Sunak has said he would try to make an “emotional argument for the United Kingdom from the heart, as well as the practical argument for it and demonstrating it”.

He has promised to rule out a second referendum on Scottish independence. However, in 2017 he said it would be “hard” to block a second vote on Scottish independence, and that it should be pushed back until after Brexit.

Strikes

Truss has promised a further crackdown on trade unions, widening restrictions to a significant new number of industries.

Truss said she would legislate for minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure in the first 30 days of government under her leadership. The pledge would go further than the Tories’ 2019 policy, which promised a minimum service should operate during transport strikes.

The new law proposed by Truss would restrict teachers, postal workers and the energy sector. Tailored minimum thresholds, including staffing levels, would be determined with each industry.

Whitehall

Truss has announced a string of reforms of the civil service, which she claims will cut the “bureaucracy and inefficiency” of Whitehall.

These reforms include the scrapping of civil service roles that focus on diversity and inclusion, and she will cap the median amount of annual leave public sector workers are entitled to, to 25 days. She also says she will defund the paid time off that public sector trade union officials can take to carry out union duties.

Sunak has not officially announced any policies regarding Whitehall yet, but in December it was reported that as chancellor, he was drawing up plans to cut tens of thousands of Whitehall jobs.