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Isabel Hardman

Last ones standing: the leadership finalists on taxes, net zero and freedom of speech

Last ones standing: the leadership finalists on taxes, net zero and freedom of speech
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After the last televised leadership debate was cancelled when Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak pulled out, we asked the remaining three candidates if they would come on SpectatorTV to face questions before Tory MPs’  final vote. (Since going to press the contenders will have been whittled down to two.) This is an edited transcript of their answers.

Do you propose tax cuts? If so, how would you pay for them?

PENNY MORDAUNT: On the current trajectory Rishi’s set us on, we are going to be one of the most uncompetitive nations in the OECD and that cannot be allowed to happen. We have to be able to compete. So there will need to be some changes. But exactly what – and when – is not the issue for this contest.

LIZ TRUSS: Raising taxes will choke off growth and make it harder for us to pay our debt back. I propose reversing the National Insurance increase. I also don’t want to increase corporation tax because we need to attract the investment to drive business and growth right across our country. I’d also have a temporary moratorium on the green levy, cutting money from people’s energy bills. The taxes that I’m cutting cost £30 billion. It can be paid for within the existing fiscal envelope. But my tax cuts will actually help grow the supply side of the economy, relieving inflationary pressures. The best way to control inflation is via monetary policy. I want to see a tougher Bank of England mandate in the future while keeping the Bank independent. The Bank of England mandate was last set in 1997 – in completely different economic times. What I’m saying is we need to look at it again and make sure it’s fit for purpose and benchmark it against international independent banks.

RISHI SUNAK: Inflation makes everybody poorer. It erodes savings, it reduces people’s living standards, it pushes up mortgage rates. So my priority is to grip that and not do anything that will make it worse. I will deliver tax cuts and we will deliver tax cuts that drive growth. But I’ll do so in a way that’s responsible. I believe that was what Margaret Thatcher would have done. And she got that inflation was something that you needed to get out of the system, and that will be my priority if elected prime minister.

Are you prepared for the £60 billion a year that the Treasury thinks the net-zero agenda will cost?

MORDAUNT: I don’t think that [the £60 billion cost] is a foregone conclusion… Governments, believe it or not, are not the answer to everything. The real answer to this is scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, people who are really passionate about this and demonstrating [to] people why it’s in their interest and their children’s interest that we do these things. We need to put out there the problems that need solving and be more explicit about that and incentivise people to come up with those answers. This is about the people of this country delivering those targets. Government can do things to help and incentivise and support and remove obstacles.

TRUSS: I’m going to review how we deliver net zero. I think we can do it in a more market-friendly way. I also think it’s very important that we’re not simply exporting our carbon production, so we need to look at the whole issue of carbon leakage. I would have a thorough review of that and also make more use of transition fuels like gas, because we know that people are struggling with energy bills at the moment. We need to do all we can to get the transition right so we are able to get to net zero in a cost-effective way.

SUNAK: I think it is hard to put a single figure on it. I know the Treasury has published various scenarios in the past, but the reason it’s difficult to say a number [is] because of innovation. The technologies to help us get there are changing, radically, by the year. The cost of offshore wind is a great example. A decade ago, offshore wind power cost about £140 an hour and now it’s down to £40. I come at this first and foremost as a dad. I’ve two young girls, and they don’t ask an enormous amount about my job for the most part. They’re not that bothered. But the one thing they do ask me about is what I’m doing on the environment and on climate change. I think that’s a very Conservative thing to care about.

How would you strengthen the Union?

MORDAUNT: We talk about tax dividends to Scottish households, but that’s not really what is going to hold the Union together. It’s the shared mutuality, it’s our history, it’s our culture. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, including the dreaded BBC – a much-loved institution but [it] doesn’t sometimes seem to love the country back. I’ve campaigned for the UK Theme [a five-minute orchestral arrangement played at 6 a.m. on Radio 4 between 1978 and 2006] to be brought back. That sounds a trivial thing, but actually it was so loved by every-one across the four nations.

TRUSS: I’m a child of the Union. I was brought up in Paisley in Scotland and in Leeds. The important point is not about how many meetings we have and how many visits we do – it’s what we actually deliver for people. And are people’s lives better? Do they have more opportunity? Are we unleashing the talent? And that’s true in Paisley as much as it is in Leeds or Belfast or Cardiff.

SUNAK: We’ve started doing much more through things like the ‘levelling-up fund’ where the UK government is talking to and delivering change to communities in Scotland. That’s new and working really well. It’s changed the conversation. People can see very clearly some of the benefits that result from that. Another thing we can do is talk emotionally. You can make practical cases for the Union and economic cases. But to me, it’s much more emotive than that: it’s about the values that bind us as a United Kingdom. I don’t think we should be afraid of making that emotional argument for the United Kingdom from the heart, as well as the practical argument for it and demonstrating it.

The Online Safety Bill would create a new category of speech that is to be censored – ‘legal, but harmful’ – and politicians would decide what is harmful. Would you protect free speech by stopping this from happening?

MORDAUNT: I do support the bill. There are some pretty horrible things that need to be gripped, and that’s what the bill does. But I do understand the concerns that there are around how you define particular things in law and the chilling effect that it might have on freedom of speech. I do recognise the need that any law we’re putting through has to have clarity. And if we can’t provide that clarity, it’s not going to work. So I’m prepared to look at those issues.

TRUSS: The principles I believe in are the protection of free speech, but also making sure that we’re not exposing under-18s to harm online. I’ve got two teenage daughters. I am very, very concerned about the effect particularly that social media has on teenage girls and mental health. I’d be very keen to talk to The Spectator and others to make sure the bill delivers what we want it to deliver. I think there is a place for further amendments to this legislation to make sure we’re delivering it and also to make sure that everybody is aware of the intention of the bill.

SUNAK: I’m glad the government’s paused the bill, so we can refine our approach. The challenge is whether it strays into the territory of suppressing free speech. And the bit in particular that has caused some concern is where the government is saying: look, here’s some content that’s legal but harmful. People rightly have said: well, what exactly does that mean? And that’s the bit that I would want, as prime minister, to go and look at to make sure that we get that right. We need to have a way to protect children against harm. But I do want to make sure that we are also protecting free speech.

Has this race been good for the Tory party? How would you reunite it?

MORDAUNT: Who is around the top table is really important. I’ve said I’m going to have a tighter cabinet. It’s currently crazy how anyone could make a decision with two football teams in that room. A tighter cabinet, empowered ministers of state, really effective government and reform in Whitehall. It’s been a contest, to date, where fault lines have been stamped on. We need to set out a vision that will unite the party and keep them focused on what happens if we don’t unite and win the next general election. We have to remember that our majority was won in very unique circumstances.

TRUSS: It’s good for parties to have those types of discussion. I’d rather have them internally, but the modern world doesn’t always work like that. Social media doesn’t work like that, and Westminster often doesn’t work like that. The important thing is to remember we must make a clear decision, as a party, about our direction. We have the debate with our members, then we move on and deliver. And we all get behind the new leader.

SUNAK: It’s always good to debate ideas. It makes sure that we challenge ourselves and we’re getting everything right as we figure out the right agenda to present to the country. But it also demonstrates the enormous range of talent that we’ve got in the party: I’ve been really proud to stand on platforms with my colleagues. Whoever wins will try very hard to unite the party. For me, that’s about building a team that draws on all the traditions and talents of our party: a broad church. Putting the best people in the jobs, continuing to conduct the rest of the campaign in a positive tone – which I’ve tried to do so far. That’s all entirely do-able. But the main thing is to reflect on the fact we’ve got some fantastic people at the top of the Conservative party and everyone should be really proud of that and excited about the future as a result.

He parts one sea and we never hear the end of it
‘He parts one sea and we never hear the end of it.’