Truss and Sunak clash over China ahead of tonight’s first televised debate

Downing Street Policy & Politics

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have clashed over who is tougher on China ahead of tonight’s (Monday) first televised debate between the would-be prime ministers.

Sunak and Truss will go head-to-head on BBC One at 9pm as 160,000 members of the Conservative party await their ballot papers.

Who is tougher on China has become another divisive issue with Truss responding to Sunak’s call for hard-hitting measures to curb Beijing’s influence in Britain on the eve of the debate.

Sunak said China represents “the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security this century” and urged the West to toughen up their policies and attitudes toward Beijing.

However, allies of Truss immediately hit back, questioning Sunak’s tough talk saying the former chancellor has been “soft” on China for years. Team Truss also claimed Sunak has been backed by Chinese state media to become the next prime minister.

In a speech on Sunday night, Sunak was seen to take a dig at foreign secretary Truss. The former chancellor vowed to close all of Britain’s Confucius Institutes – which teach Mandarin in universities and have links to China’s ruling communist party – should he become PM. Sunak’s campaign team said 31 of the Confucius Institutes were set up during Truss’ time as an education minister between 2012 and 2014.

“Enough is enough,” said Sunak. “For too long politicians in Britain and across the West have rolled out the red carpet and turned a blind eye to China’s nefarious activity and ambitions.”

‘Hawk’ Truss enjoys early lead over ‘dove’ Sunak

Truss is the early and clear favourite among the 160,000 Conservative members who will decide who becomes the next prime minister and tonight’s BBC One debate could be a pivotal moment in the campaign.

While Sunak has dismissed Truss’ plan to cut tax and spend more as “fairytale economics“, the foreign secretary is positioning herself as a “hawk” in the leadership race. Truss’ aim to paint Sunak as a “dove” is part of a strategy she hopes will “broaden her appeal beyond her main policy promise of tax-cutting,” the Telegraph reports.

Both candidates are appealing to the “selectorate” of Tory members and have been accused of “throwing red-meat” to the right wing base with promises to toughen even further Britain’s immigration policies. Both have backed the controversial Rwanda policy to deport asylum seekers to the African state.

Tories don’t know how many members they have

The Conservative party claims to have 200,000 members although the last available figures for 2019 show 160,000, so questions are raised about how many people will actually determine who rules from No 10.

“The simple reason is they don’t know [how many members they have],” the Telegraph’s associate politics editor Christopher Hope told BBC 5 Live last night.

Local Conservative association chairman have been asked to return their membership list by July 31 so they can count how many members they have.

Johnson’s allies plot return to No 10

Meanwhile, some 10,000 Tory members have signed a petition demanding Boris Johnson stays in no 10 as party leader and PM.

Johnson is caretaker prime minister until September 5 when either Truss or Sunak – as the candidates chosen by Conservative MPs – will take over in No 10.

Hope said there is a disconnect slowly emerging between the 358 Tory MPs “who think they know best” and the wider membership.

Lord [Peter] Crudass of Shoreditch – a very wealthy former party Tory treasurer and donor who was ennobled by Johnson in 2021 – has set up a petition to be submitted to the co-chairman of the Conservative party, Andrew Stevenson – saying they should have a vote on removing “their leader”, not the MPs.

By Sunday night, some 10,000 members of the party had signed the petition. “Pressure is growing on the party,” said Hope explaining that one MP has already voiced his backing for Johnson to stay in No 10.

“There is a disconnect here between Tory MPs who think they know best, and members, or at least some members,” said Hope. “The party is worried because this would throw the whole leadership process into complete chaos were they forced to allow a second vote alongside the Truss versus Sunak drama, saying, do you approve of Boris Johnson resigning? If they said ‘no’, then what?”

Section 17 of the Tory party constitution allows the party board to act if it is in the best interest of the party. Hope said this has been used to “parachute-in favoured candidates” to safe seats. No leader is allowed to run in successive leadership campaigns, automatically ruling Johnson out. However, if – as the thousands of Tory members wish – Johnson does not leave office, he will remain leader and therefore won’t be running in an election.

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