Rishi Sunak said he would support the return of grammar schools while Liz Truss promised to revive Northern Powerhouse Rail during a wide-ranging hustings event that saw them grilled on everything from Love Island to illegal drugs.
After four TV debates with audiences largely made up of floating voters, the leadership hopefuls were finally confronted by Tory party members who will choose Britain’s next prime minister.
The two-hour long hustings event in Leeds was the first of 12 that will take place across the country before voting closes on September 2.
Tory accuses Sunak of ‘stabbing Johnson in back’ – live updates
Here’s a round-up of the biggest talking points.
Mr Sunak received applause when he said he would support the return of grammar schools.
Asked in a quick-fire question if he backed the controversial move, he said: “Yes.”
Mr Sunak, who was privately educated, said he believes in “educational excellence” and that education “is the most powerful way to transform lives.”
But he said improving the schools system in the UK is “not about throwing more money at the problem”.
He said: “It’s about reforming the system to get better outcomes. And that’s what I would do with education as well.”
New grammar schools were outlawed in 1998 when Labor banned the creation of new selective state schools – saying they disadvantaged children from poorer backgrounds.
Northern Powerhouse Rail
Ms Truss capitalized on her Yorkshire roots in her bid to win over the northern audience – though there was an awkward silence when she announced she is now a supporter of Norwich City FC.
The foreign secretary received a warm reception, however, when she doubled down on her commitment to the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) scheme to improve transport connections between Liverpool and Leeds. This was originally announced by Boris Johnson but subsequently scaled back – leading to accusations the government had “betrayed” the north.
Ms Truss said it was not acceptable that Leeds is the “largest city in Europe without its own metro system”. She said she used to go ice skating in Bradford, and that transport connections have not improved much since then.
She said NPR would help with her leveling up agenda, adding that she will level up in a “Conservative way” through low tax zones in areas “that have been left behind, so we level the playing field.”
Sunak denies tax U-turn and stabbing Johnson in the back
Mr Sunak, who is trailing behind Ms Truss in polling of Conservative Party members, pitched himself as the underdog who “hasn’t taken the easy road” with his plans to hold off on large tax cuts.
In his opening speech he warned it was not responsible to “mortgage our children and grandchildren’s future to make our lives easier now” – in a veiled dig at Ms Truss’ plans to cut taxes immediately if she becomes prime minister.
But this came back to bite him when he was asked whether he had “flip-flopped” on his position on taxes, after he announced a VAT cut on energy bills to help with the cost of living crisisdespite repeatedly calling tax cuts “immoral” because of inflation.
Mr Sunak denied U-turning on his position, saying his plans were time-limited and temporary.
The former chancellor also denied stabbing Boris Johnson in the back by stepping down earlier this month, saying he had “no choice” but to go.
Truss asked if she would ‘accidentally walk us into WW3’
During her grilling, Ms Truss was asked whether she would “accidentally walk us into World War Three” following her strong comments on Ukraine.
She said she takes it as a “badge of pride” that she has been sanctioned by the Russian regime. She said the UK’s response to the war has “encouraged our allies in the free world”, adding it would be “completely wrong to listen to the sabre-rattling or propaganda” from Russia.
Asked whether Russia’s threats of nuclear war concern her, she said that “Putin has said all kinds of things” that have not come true.
She also faced an uncomfortable question on the monarchy.
Host Nick Ferrari asked whether the Queen might bring up Ms Truss’s voting record if she becomes PM – as when she was a Liberal Democrat in 1994, she had voted for the abolition of the monarchy.
Ms Truss took the question in good humor and said that in previous meetings with the Queen, the monarch has been “far too polite to raise what I have previously said”.
Truss supports single sex toilets
Asked about her views on single-sex toilets, Ms Truss said she believes single-sex spaces should be protected, particularly for young people and vulnerable women in domestic violence shelters.
Ms Truss says teenagers “should be able to have the privacy you need in your own loo”.
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Asked about what options there should be for young people who are transitioning, she says schools can provide additional facilities but they “should not be at the expense of protecting young girls.”
She adds: “I do not believe that under-18s should be able to make irreversible decisions about their own bodies that they might come to regret later.”
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Mr Sunak also received applause for his tough stance on immigration.
He says it is one of the issues he wants to “grip as quickly as possible” as prime minister and says there is a 10-point plan on his website.
However, he lists off some of the key points of his policy.
Mr Sunak says he wants to:
• “Tighten” the definition of what counts as asylum
• Help people get through the asylum system quicker
• Send back more failed asylum seekers
• Look at the UK’s rates of rejection and acceptance for asylum seekers
On a lighter note, Ms Truss said it was “completely horrified” by Love Island and turned it off within 10 minutes of watching it with her daughter.
If you’re not up to date with the latest from Casa Amor, Ofcom received more than 5,000 complaints about the show in a week – most of them relating to alleged In misogynistic behavior by some of the male contestants.
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will take part in a head-to-head debate on Sky News on Thursday 4th August at 8pm hosted by Kay Burley.
If you would like to be a member of the live studio audience and be in with a chance of asking a question, please apply here.