Candidates Face Off in First Televised UK Leader’s Debate

(Left-right) Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Tom Tugendhat at Here East studios in Stratford, east London, before the live television debate for the candidates for leadership of the Conservative party, hosted by Channel 4. Picture date: Friday July 15, 2022. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via …
Getty Images

It’s an election in which only a tiny minority of Britons will be able to vote in, yet it will decide the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Whether the public can vote to select the next leader of the Conservative Party or not, the five remaining candidates in the race are facing off Friday night on live television.

In the United Kingdom the leader of the government — the Prime Minister — is chosen by the largest party, which at the moment are the Conservative Party after Boris Johnson’s historic electoral victory in 2019. Although the Johnson government has now collapsed, that doesn’t change the fact the Conservative Party still dominates Parliament, so it is them who get to choose the next Prime Minister without having to go to the country for a fresh election.

It makes these televised debates strangely redundant, in a way: perhaps the majority of the people watching will not be members of the Conservative Party and consequently will not actually get a say in who is the next Prime Minister. Nevertheless, they are happening, and here’s how the first one unfolded:

The original story can be read below these updates

Update 2140BST: The ghost of Lord Goldsmith stalks the studio

Fair to say that green Conservatives have not been happy about losing the best Prime Minister they could hope for in Boris Johnson, and have been sounding increasingly desperate in demanding whoever takes over next stick to their line on wrecking the economy. Guru-Murthy obligingly did top Tory green Zach Goldsmith — now a member of the House of Lords, by the way — a great favour by allowing him to dial in a question remotely.

Challenging the candidates to answer whether they agreed with Goldsmith that deviating from Boris Johnson’s green politics “in any way would be political suicide”, Badenoch stuck to her previously expressed guns, at least, and said “he is wrong”.

She said: “The pledge was made in 2018 for 2050, none of us are going to be here as politicians in 2050. It’s very easy to set a target which we are not going to be held responsible and accountable for when the time comes.” she said. Badenoch said that any plan should be done in a sustainable manner, noting that “many of the things we are doing could economically damage our country… and other countries won’t follow us.”

Badenoch said the targets themselves really didn’t matter so much, what was more important was how to reduce emissions without harming ordinary people.

Fair enough. Liz Truss had some interesting views, pointing out — probably quite rightly — that the environment isn’t just about carbon dioxide, but is about the animals and plants too. Saying she wanted to get past the inherited EU-era rules Truss said “I would launch as PM a new survey of nature… I am committed to net zero, I think we could deliver it in a better way. I’ve talked about using more nuclear power.”

Further: “We have a natural habitats directive we’ve inherited from the EU, and that’s about nature across Europe. What I want to see is a specific British survey, understanding what species are in danger so we can help tackle that issue”.

Mordaunt struck a familiar tone by selling climate change policies as a way to grow, rather than destroy, the economy. There could be thousands of green jobs, she said, and they could “contribute towards our industrial renaissance and levelling up”.

Sunak didn’t really have anything of note to say on the matter. Tom Tugendhat, meanwhile, got all Parade’s End, declaring “These islands are precious to me and deeply, deeply personal to me”, and hence it was important for Britain to institute a global regime of climate controls to prevent the UK being the only nation on earth destroying its economy to save the environment.

It’s certainly an important point — as Badenoch said earlier in the race, environmental controls here and not abroad is simply outsourcing pollution when the things you buy are imported. Tugendhat said there should be carbon offshore pricing — in other words hefty taxes on things made abroad in ecologically intensive ways, like steel — remarking: “what we don’t do is cut carbon emissions here and see jobs go to China. We don’t see the punishment of British workers for higher standards. We don’t see steel industries closing down because others use dirty coal and we’re not allowed to. We need to make sure that when we set rules, we don’t allow others to undercut them with cheaper prices.”

He concluded: “that’s why we need to be working around the world, holding other countries to the same standards we are, or taxing them appropriately”. It’s one way of dealing with the problem, and here Tugendhat’s globalist streak shone through brighter than any other time in the evening.

Lastly, it’s final remarks from the candidates. In their own words: 

Kemi: “…unless we change, we will fail. I love this country… it is the best place in the world… The machine is not working.  As an engineer, I know how to strip things down and get them to work. And with me as your Prime Minister, we will have to change for the better, and that’s the honest truth.”

Tugendhat: “People tonight have been asking the right questions. We need a clean start, we all know that. Some of us have the answer. I have a track record of leadership, I have led on operations and I have led in Parliament. And now I would like to lead the United Kingdom.”

Mordaunt: “I’m not the traditional offer, I’m not the legacy candidate, I’m focussed on the future. An dI want our nation to be all it can be, and to shine with the newfound freedoms our great democracy has determined it would.”

Sunak: “We’ve had a robust debate tonight… nothing worth having ever comes easy. The question is simple: do we confront the challenges facing our country honestly and responsibly or not. For me, there is only one answer.”

Truss: “Now is not the time for the continuity of our current economic policy. We need to be bold, we need to do things differently, we need to cut taxes, we need to unleash growth…”


Update 2030BST: How do you pay for tax cuts? 

Will tax cuts come at the expense of public services? That’s the next challenge poses. Tom Tugendhat first: he points out that taxes are at their highest level in 70 years and that is part of what has made the cost of living crisis so bad — the government is taking people’s money. Still, “public services are important to all of us… and the state needs to be there with you”.

If Tom was sounding like a Conservative, he gets a little lost here, in appealing to the audience member he’s replying to, saying: “we need to reach beyond the centre and ensure we can reach into your home”. Fair enough. He says responsibility for making the NHS better will be placed on NHS leadership itself, saying there should be a “return to the service ethos of our government”.

Guru-Murthy introduces Liz Truss as the “standard bearer for tax cuts”, which she may thank him for. She says its wrong to put up national insurance and charge a green energy levy, and that these taxes should be cut. Somewhat controversially — clearly, given the amount of pushback she gets from others on the panel — Truss says British government debt is relatively low compared to countries like Japan, Canada, and the United States, so tax cuts should be paid for with more borrowing.

Sunak says “The answer to too much borrowing isn’t more borrowing… borrowing your way out of inflation is a fairy tale ” in response to this. He’s sounding very responsible but he has to — it’s his profligate spending in recent years that’s landed the government in this monetary mess.

Badenoch is noncommittal on tax cuts or rises, as she has been throughout her campaign, simply saying “there are no solutions, only trade-offs. Every decision has a cost somewhere else”. She does balance that, however, by remarking that there would be no need to cut if the economy was growing, which is what she wants to see. She says: “Tax cuts are there to let people keep more of their own money so they can survive inflation and cost of living increases.”

Penny Mordaunt tries to put clear blue water between herself and her colleagues, saying “my economy policy is not based on tax and spend, it is based on growth and competition”, but ends up sounding a little like Badenoch. Says she won’t cut a lot of taxes, something a lot of Conservative voters are not going to want to hear. Instead, she focusses on the — very important — challenge of making Brexit work, and with it delivering a Brexit dividend of growth.

Tackling barriers to investment, blocks to innovation, and engaging in supply-side reforms will fix the economy, she says. Sounding more like a Conservative Mordaunt says people’s money belongs to them, not the exchequer.

Tugendhat again plays his outsider card, pointing out he’s the only MP present who didn’t vote to raise payroll taxes earlier this year, calling it a tax on jobs. He gets applause for this too. The studio audience like him — even if his colleagues in Parliament don’t: he’s the lowest scoring rider still in the race.


Update 2029 BST: The Transgender Agenda

On the issue of transgenderism and the ability for people to self-identify their own gender, Penny Mordaunt, who has previously been criticised for stating that “trans women are women and trans men are men,” before trying to make a distinction between biological and legal women, said in response to questions over actual stance that she “can’t imagine why people are not comprehending what I say,” before claiming that she was always opposed to self-id.

“I’m a woman, I am a biological woman, if I had a mastectomy, I would still be a woman, every cell in my body, I’m also legally a woman and some people who are born male go through a process and are issued at the end of that process with legal document in their new gender but that does not mean they are identical to me.”

Kemi Badenoch claimed that Mordaunt had indeed been in favour of self-identification, as opposed to doctor certification, and that there should be evidence within the government to back up her claims. “I didn’t work with Penny, but my understanding that the previous minister (Mordaunt) had wanted self-id and that’s something I reversed with Liz [Truss].”

Mordaunt denied the claim, and Lizz Truss refused to side with either camp, though admitted that there was such a plan in place when she came into power, appearing to back up Badenoch.

For herself, Truss said she believes in women’s rights, but she also thinks transgender people should be treated with respect, saying that domestic shelters for abused women should be protected as female spaces but that everyone should be free and treated with respect.

The other candidates, Sunak and Tugendhat were not pressed on their stance on the transgender issue.


Update 2020BST: Second question — how to make a clean break?

The second answer from Channel 4’s studio audience concerned how the prospective candidates would differentiate themselves from the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Penny Mordaunt said that while it is important for a “fresh start”, all of the Conservative leadership candidates ran on the same election manifesto as Boris Johnson and therefore should deliver on the promises made to the 14 million people that put them in office, namely on delivering Brexit. She also stressed the need for social services, such as the NHS, to be optimised to meet the needs of the public.

Tom Tugendhat played up his integrity once again, saying that by merely throwing his hat in the ring was an attempt to restore trust in government, which he said should be in service of the people rather than in leaders.

In one of the harsher critiques of the Johnson administration, and perhaps Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch said that she would appoint people based on talent, rather than because they were loyal, suggesting that Johnson filled his cabinet with less than competent ministers in exchange for their loyalty to him.

Hinting at his high tax agenda, former Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that he would take a “responsible” approach to the debt incurred during lockdown “even if it’s not politically convenient,” despite the fact that the debt was largely accrued as a result of his lockdown policies. Finally Liz Truss said that she would focus on showing people “spades in the ground” for the government’s “levelling up” projects and take steps to make sure the public’s “tax bills and energy bills come down now”.

Concluding on the section on “trust”, Guru-Murthy turned to the audience and asked them to raise their hands if any of them trusted politicians. There were zero hands raised in the room.

Conservative party leadership contenders Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak at Here East studios in Stratford, east London, before the live television debate for the candidates for leadership of the Conservative party, hosted by Channel 4. Picture date: Friday July 15, 2022. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)


Update 2000BST: First question is on honesty — how can the country trust these candidates? 

Can the public trust a new Conservative leader? That’s the first question from Channel Four’s studio audience. Guru-Murthy is characteristically aggressive with his questioning of the candidates and doesn’t miss a beat. You may not like his slant, but he’s on form tonight. First up is Liz Truss, who spoke about her record working on Brexit, remarking “I delivered what I said I would deliver”.

Truss said she has a proven record of delivery and has been loyal to Boris Johnson in public, but challenged him in private.

Next is Tom Tugendhat, who sells himself as the fresh start candidate. He said trust in the Conservative Party is collapsing and claims he’s been holding a mirror up to its MPs, asking whether they have been serving the country or themselves. Namechecking his prior military service, Tugendhat says “I swore loyalty to our country, and that’s where I will always owe my loyalty”.

Characteristically punchy, Guru-Murthy says Rishi Sunak never stood up to Boris in government until the very last moment — when he resigned from government, bringing it down with him. Sunak says he owes loyalty to Boris but “I got to a point recently where enough was enough… and I took the decision to resign because I wanted to be honest”.

Changing tack on the question slightly, Guru-Murthysays tells outsider candidate Kemi Badenoch that because she’s an unknown to the country, she should immediately call a general election if she won the competition. Badenoch throws it back, though, saying it would be illogical as an unknown Prime Minister to immediately go to the polls, and that she should take time to prove herself to the country until the next scheduled national vote in 2024. “As I say on trust, you show, not tell”, she says.

Penny Mordaunt says there is a bond of trust between politicians and the nation, and that MPs have to “tep up and lead, create an environment where… people can move their communities on.” Replying to Guru-Murthy’s remark that she has been the subject of a smear campaign in the press, she says it is a compliment that the others don’t want her in the race.

This round finishes with a quick-fire question — is Boris Johnson an honest man? This gives candidates a chance to distance themselves from the old regime, but breaks Ronald Reagan’s law of political campaigning — never criticise people in your own party. You end up spending more time fighting people you 90% agree with than people you totally disagree with that way, after all. Some interesting answers:

Kemi: “sometimes”

Penny: “he is somebody who has an extremely… there have been some really severe issues and he has paid the price”

Sunak: “I gave him the benefit of the doubt but I had to resign”

Truss: “he has been clear he made mistakes in govt… he said himself some of the statements issued by No.10 were not entirely honest”

Tugendhat: “No.”

Tugendhat gets the only applause of the evening so far for that.


Update 1931BST: The five candidates have taken their positions at the studio set in London for tonight’s debate

Krishnan Guru-Murthy is hosting. He opens with a good dose of classic Channel 4 perspective, talking about scandal and sleaze. Here we go.

The original story continues below:

The race to replace Boris Johnson has seen a series of sifts and votes this week reduce the field from a dozen to just five, with further votes to whittle down those running to two coming next week. Yet, the votes among Conservative Members of Parliament — the only people who have a choice in who is the next Prime Minister for now — are taking a break over the weekend, giving space for a series of events to allow those in the running to show themselves off.

This kicked off with a virtual hustings hosted by a Conservative Party-affiliated blog Friday afternoon in which the five remaining candidates (Kemi Badenoch, with 49 votes at the last vote, Penny Mordaunt with 83, Rishi Sunak with 101, Liz Truss with 64, and Tom Tugendhat with 32, barely over the threshold) were united in saying nothing of interest. Perhaps the candidates were aware the bigger fight of the day was to be the evening’s nationally televised leadership debate and were keeping their powder dry for that. Still, the event was so uneventful even the Daily Telegraph was forced to note in response to one question, there was “no meaningful policy… none of the candidates [gave] a clear line”.

This is being followed by two leader’s debates on national television: Channel 4 tonight, and Sky News on Sunday afternoon. While there are no formal knockout processes due between the two events, it’s conceivable a disastrous performance tonight by one of the candidates with a lower vote share could precipitate an early withdrawal.

Indeed, there has been pressure from within the Conservative party for some candidates to step down early and coalesce around another to improve the chances of getting a particular set of values through to the final round, where two final aspirants will be voted upon by the 180,000-odd paid-up members of the Conservative Party in the country at large. These calls seem to be mainly active on the Brexiteer-right of the party, but there is a problem with the plan: the favoured candidate of these calls, Liz Truss, is one of the less obvious Brexiteers on the ballot paper.

Attorney General Suella Braverman, who certainly is a Brexiteer and was praised by Nigel Farage as having the best pro-Brexit policy of the candidates initially refused to step aside for Truss, who is a former Liberal Democrat, Remain voter, and who even contributed to the George Obsorne-era ‘project fear’ propaganda effort to derail Brexit. Yet, in a remarkable development when Braverman was knocked out of the competition on Thursday, rather than lending the support of herself and her voters to the next-obvious choice, Kemi Badenoch, she instead said she would be backing Truss.

Quite possibly this is a strategic move, making Braverman getting a good job in the next government more likely, and with it a chance to influence Britain’s Brexit policy in the coming years. Yet, it all but scuppers the hopes of Badenoch, the closest thing to an actual conservative standing to be the next Prime Minister.

Other parts of the Conservative Party — which prides itself on being a ‘broad church’ coalition of different views to which it attributes its remarkable success, being the most powerful political party in British history — are also well represented in this race. Media favourite Penny Mordaunt — which news outlets have relentlessly insisted is the membership favourite to win — is also a Brexiteer, but unlike the right-conservative Brexiteers like Braverman and Badenoch might be better described as centrist, even a globalist.

While little known before this competition, increased focus and awareness of her past comments on transgender issues, and the heaped praise from characters like Bill Gates and Tony Blair on her recent book has underlined her progressive globalist bona-fides.

Representing the bland, managerial wing of the party is Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson’s right-hand-man-turned Brutus. During his time in government, Sunak has been quick to spend considerable amounts of money and raise taxes, and is the only Conservative in the race who, like Johnson, received a fine for breaking lockdown rules. Despite the fact Sunak carries all the baggage of the Johnson era and represents the steady-as-she-goes position of managed decline and high tax, high-spending government, Sunak is by far the favourite of the Conservative party elite and is only a handful of votes away from securing a place in the final-two membership vote for leader.

Last — and coincidentally also least, in terms of the number of votes received so far — is neocon Tom Tugendhat, whose pitch for leader is mainly predicated on war with Russia and his previous military service. Westminster chatter is that his team explains away his relatively poor performance so far on the fact he’s not had a chance to shine, and he’ll convince the country in tonight’s televised debate. Anything is possible, and certainly, his totally average performance in today’s earlier leadership hustings is already a massive improvement over his downcast leadership launch video earlier this week. Watch this space.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.