Conservative leadership race hustings: What have we learned so far?

Politics

After Tory MPs sprinted through five rounds of voting for a new party leader in just a week, the battle for the votes of party members has already been a six-week marathon.

For Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak it’s almost the end of the road as they prepare for the 12th and final Conservative Party hustings, in London, even though most members have already voted.

The previous 11 hustings have seen the two rivals do battle in eight towns and cities in England, from Darlington in the north east to Exeter in the south west, and one each in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

At all 11 hustings, the evening has begun with the song Don’t Stop Believin’, by the American rock band Journey – lyrics clearly aimed at Red Wall voters considering deserting the Tories at the next election.

Politics Live: Boris Johnson touring country in last week as PM

So what have been the highlights in the first 11 hustings and what have we learned? All 11 have been dominated by questions about the cost of living crisis. But there has been much, much more.

Here’s a look back at the highs and lows from each.

More on Liz Truss

Leeds, 28 July

Rishi Sunak was warmly applauded by the audience when he said he would support the return of grammar schools. But that was as good as it got for him.

A member of the audience later accused him of stabbing Boris Johnson in the back by stepping down earlier this month, but he said he had “no choice” but to go.

Host Nick Ferrari asked Liz Truss whether the Queen might bring up her voting record if she becomes PM, since she campaigned to abolish the monarchy when she was a Lib Dem.

She replied that in previous meetings the Queen had been “far too polite to raise what I have previously said”.

She also tried to curry favour at the Elland Road hustings by saying the UK “needs to channel the spirit of Don Revie”, the hugely successful manager of Leeds United before three difficult years in charge of the England team, who it’s claimed was a Labour supporter!

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak
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Rishi Sunak was accused of stabbing Boris Johnson in the back

Exeter, 1 August

In a moment of political theatre, at the beginning of these hustings, Penny Mordaunt – runner up in all but the final round of the MPs’ voting – dramatically climbed on board the Truss bandwagon and endorsed her former rival. Introducing Ms Truss, she claimed she was “the hope candidate”.

It was also the hustings when Ms Truss said: “I think the best thing to do with Nicola Sturgeon is to ignore her. She’s an attention seeker.”

Scotland’s First Minister later hit back by revealing an earlier conversation with Ms Truss. “She wanted to know how she could get into Vogue,” said Ms Sturgeon. Ouch!

Rishi Sunak was again accused by an audience member of being disloyal to Boris Johnson. He claimed he had been loyal but the government ended up in a situation where “yet again” it was “on the wrong side of a very serious ethical question”, he said.

And in a vow that she may not care to repeat as the campaign enters its final days, Ms Truss said she would have the “fantastic” Mr Sunak as “part of my team” if she became PM.

MP Penny Mordaunt and Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss attend a hustings event, part of the Conservative leadership campaign, in Exeter, Britain, August 1, 2022. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls
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Former Tory leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt endorsed Liz Truss at the second hustings

Cardiff, 3 August

Protesters from Extinction Rebellion and other climate campaigners greeted the candidates and party members as they arrived.

Once inside, Liz Truss was forced on to the defensive over an embarrassing U-turn on public sector pay, after a furious backlash against a proposal for regional pay boards from top Tories including “Red Wall” poster boy Ben Houchen, mayor of Tees Valley.. “It was never intended to apply to doctors, nurses and teachers,” she told the audience.

She also said she wanted to extend the government’s controversial Rwanda migrant policy to more countries.

Read more: Who is Liz Truss?

Rishi Sunak claimed that as a backbench MP he came up with the idea of freeports, even though they have existed in the UK since the 1980s and first appeared in the Conservatives’ 1983 general election manifesto, when he was three and 32 years before he became an MP

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Why should we trust your judgement after regional pay U-turn?

Eastbourne, 5 August

Liz Truss was interrupted by activists as she attempted to deliver her opening speech. Protesters from Green New Deal Rising shouted “shame on you” and “Green New Deal” as they stood holding placards inside the venue. “I think we have some infiltrators and I will wait until they are evicted,” she said stiffly.

As rail strikes hit the UK, she declared: “I would legislate immediately to make sure that we are standing up to militant trade unions who stop ordinary commuters getting into work. And I would legislate to protect our essential services.”

Rishi Sunak said unless inflation was under control, the Conservatives would lose the next election. “If we don’t get a grip of this thing and get a grip of it fast, then we can kiss goodbye to winning that next election,” he told the audience.

The protesters shouted "shame on you" and "Green New Deal" as they stood holding placards inside the hustings venue
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The protesters shouted ‘shame on you’ and ‘Green New Deal’ as they stood holding placards inside the hustings venue

Darlington, 9 August

In a vow that was later widely criticised by opponents, Liz Truss said that if she was given the chance she would vote to end the privileges committee inquiry into whether Boris Johnson lied to MPs about Partygate.

It was the first hustings in a so-called “Red Wall” constituency and Rishi Sunak was under pressure after a video had emerged of him boasting while campaigning in Tunbridge Wells of stripping cash from “deprived urban areas” and pumping funds into what critics claimed were leafy, wealthy areas.

Read more: Who is Rishi Sunak?

And after he pledged further cash payments to help ease the cost of living crisis in response to predictions that energy bills could top £4,200 next year, Ms Truss accused him of “Gordon Brown economics”.

The well-heeled Mr Sunak also appeared at Darlington well-suited but not so well-booted. A photographer spotted he had a small hole in the sole of his left shoe and a rip in the side, even though he’s married to the daughter of a billionaire and the pair have a £730 million fortune.

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Sunak on diverting funding from ‘deprived areas’

Cheltenham, 11 August

In a constituency where the Tory majority over the Lib Dems is under 1,000, Liz Truss began by getting her English counties mixed up.

“We need to get on with delivering the small modular nuclear reactors which we produce here in Derbyshire,” she said. She meant Gloucestershire, of course, and fortunately for her the audience either didn’t appear to notice or were too polite to say anything.

At the height of the heatwave, it was also the hustings where Mr Sunak made one of his fiercest attacks on Liz Truss’s cost of living policies.

“We are going to, as a Conservative government, leave millions of incredibly vulnerable people at the risk of real destitution,” he claimed.

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Britons on £45,000k ‘will need help’

Perth, 16 August

In the most hostile protests against the Tories so far, party members had eggs thrown at them and were greeted with chants of ‘Tory scum’ ahead of the hustings.

MPs claimed older members were intimidated and spat at by pro-independence protesters pushing through the barriers.

Inside, after Scottish Power boss Keith Anderson proposed freezing the energy price cap, Rishi Sunak ruled it out and Liz Truss dismissed it as “sticking plaster”.

Ms Truss, who went to primary school in Paisley, described herself as “a child of the union” – though she declined to attempt a Scottish accent – and on demands for a second independence referendum declared: “To me we are not just neighbours, we are family – and I will never let our family be split up.”

Perth
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Angry protests took place outside the Tory leadership hustings in Perth

Belfast, 17 August

Liz Truss said the Northern Ireland protocol was causing unfairness and warned: “Until we sort the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol, we’re not going to get Stormont back up and running. And I’ve been in discussions with all of the parties in Northern Ireland, I’m determined to make it happen.”

Rishi Sunak said: “It is clear that the operation of the protocol, as it’s currently being enacted, is putting that position at risk – and I will do everything I can as prime minister to fix that.”

Ms Truss also rejected a plea to restore the abortion ban in Northern Ireland while Mr Sunak vowed to be “much tougher” on the benefits system.

And an audience member asked Ms Truss whether her support of Boris Johnson brought into question her “own personal integrity and honesty”. She replied, to loud applause: “I don’t agree with that. Boris Johnson has been an excellent prime minister.”

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‘I will protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’

Manchester, 19 August

A downbeat Rishi Sunak apparently acknowledged he is heading for defeat because he has refused to pander to Conservative activists.

Hitting out at Liz Truss’s “bonkers” trade policy, he said: “As you can see in this leadership race, I have not chosen to say the things that people may want to hear. I’ve said the things that I believe the country needs to hear.”

Read more: Who’s in the running for the top jobs in the next government?

He also lost his temper with a member of the audience, lambasting a young activist who claimed the south received more funds from the Levelling Up Programme.

“For you to say that there are places in the south that don’t need investment is simply completely wrong,” said Mr Sunak. “And if you think the Conservative government is going to get re-elected by telling people in the south that we don’t give a stuff about them and they don’t have needs, I don’t know what planet you’re on.”

Sunak
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Rishi Sunak lost his temper with a member of the audience in Manchester

Birmingham, 23 August

Liz Truss said she wants more free schools and “more grammar schools in every area”. She told the audience: “I send both of my daughters to a grammar school, but they only had that choice because we’re in a particular part of London. I want people to have that choice right across the country.”

And repeating a pledge she made on Sky News’ The Battle for Number 10 on 4 August, she also vowed to divert billions of pounds for social care from the NHS to councils.

The £13billion a year earmarked for the NHS from the recent National Insurance rise would be diverted to local authorities to pay for older people’s care as soon as possible, she said.

More controversially, she suggested she would not appoint an independent ethics adviser following the resignation of Lord Geidt who was appointed by Boris Johnson and later quit.

Rishi Sunak, after all but ruling out serving in a Liz Truss cabinet in an interview earlier, refused to say he would vote for what he sees as Ms Truss’s “unfunded tax cuts” in the Commons if she wins the leadership race.

He said: “You’re getting into all these hypotheticals.” The following day he was forced to say he would “always support a Conservatives government”.

Times Radio presenter John Pienaar speaking to Liz Truss during a hustings event at the NEC in Birmingham as part of their campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party and the next prime minister. Picture date: Tuesday August 23, 2022.
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Liz Truss said she wants to give people the choice to send their kids to grammar schools

Norwich, 25 August

These hustings came alive during the quick-fire rounds, when Liz Truss risked a diplomatic row with France and was disobliging about Sir Keir Starmer.

The first question was: “President Macron, friend or foe?” Without hesitation Rishi Sunak replied: “Friend.” But Ms Truss later replied: “The jury’s out.”

She said she’d judge him, if she became PM, on deeds, not words. Sacre bleu! The President responded by claiming France and Britain would be facing “serious problems” if they could not say whether they were friends or enemies.

Read more: What have Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss pledged for the country?

Then came the question: “Who would you rather be stuck in a lift with, Keir Starmer or Nicola Sturgeon?” After a big laugh, Mr Sunak responded: “I’d take the stairs.”

The audience loved it. Ms Truss, however, replied: “Nicola Sturgeon.” Why? Because she’d try to talk her out of her separatist policies, she said. Being stuck in a lift with the Labour leader, she said, would be “extremely boring”.

That was a strange answer, given that at the Exeter hustings she’d said she’d ignore Scotland’s first minister and dismissed her as “an attention seeker”.

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‘UK is a friend in spite of its leaders’

London, 31 August

Now for the finale, the 12th hustings, in London. In a letter to Conservative MPs last week, party co-chairman Andrew Stephenson urged Tory MPs to attend and promised them a reception afterwards as an incentive to be there.

Appealing for a big turnout from MPs, he said the final hustings would be widely attended by the media and by thousands of Conservative members and activists from across the country.

And he concluded with this offer, which some MPs may find appealing: “I will be hosting a reception for Parliamentarians following the hustings to which all colleagues are warmly invited to attend.”

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