Rishi Sunak admits he's trailing Liz Truss in race to become UK PM

Candidates Rishi Sunak (left) and Liz Truss in the BBC Conservative party leadership debate on July 25, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Mr Rishi Sunak conceded he was the underdog in the race to be the next Conservative Party leader and UK prime minister, but vowed to fight for every vote.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer admitted his pledge not to cut personal taxes until inflation is under control was not universally popular, telling Conservative members at the first official hustings event: "Even though it hasn't made my life easy, it is the honest thing to do."

His rival, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss - who has vowed to cut taxes as soon as she takes office - appeared to enjoy a warmer reception at the gathering in Leeds, north-east England, on Thursday (July 28) night.

Ms Truss promised a "complete review" of Britain's tax system, saying it was "too complicated" and must be fair for families.

Ms Truss was also given a major boost when Defence Secretary Ben Wallace declared he was backing her for prime minister, telling The Sun newspaper that Mr Sunak was wrong to walk out of the Cabinet and trigger Mr Boris Johnson's downfall.

Ms Truss was "authentic" and "straight" and could do the job from day one, said Mr Wallace, who is regarded as one of the most popular members of the government and had been seen as the early favourite to replace Mr Johnson before he ruled himself out.

"I have sat with her in Cabinet, bilateral meetings and international summits. She stands her ground. Above all, she is straight and means what she says," he wrote in the Times newspaper.

Mr Sunak is trying to make inroads into Ms Truss's wide polling lead among Tory party members as he bids to succeed Mr Johnson as prime minister.

The pair are embarking on a series of hustings across the UK over the summer in an attempt to secure the votes of roughly 175,000 party members, before the winner is announced Sept 5.

"I know the polls say I'm behind in this race," Mr Sunak said in his opening pitch. "I'm asking for all of your support. And I promise you, I am going to fight for every single vote."

In a thinly-veiled dig at Ms Truss, he warned that unfunded tax cuts were "not responsible and certainly not Conservative."

But Ms Truss said now was "not the time for business as usual." She underlined her pledges to reverse a hike in national insurance and to keep corporation tax "low," and she won applause for promising to deliver a key rail project in northern England, known as Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Also in the hustings event, Ms Truss said she did not back windfall taxes on energy companies because "they put off future investment" - but was not asked if she would reverse the current energy profits levy.

Mr Sunak declined to give a target for the percentage of GDP that the UK should spend on defence, saying only he would "spend whatever it takes to keep our country safe".

Ms Truss said that if she was prime minister, she would "deliver a victory for the Conservatives in 2024" - a hint at the date of the next general election which must take place before January 2025.

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