Former chancellor Rishi Sunak convincingly won over an audience of Conservative Party members in a head-to-head television debate with rival Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in the leadership contest to elect a new Tory party leader and British prime minister.
The ’Battle for Number 10' on Sky News on Thursday night brought the finalists face to face with Conservative members who are entitled to vote in the election but are mostly undecided on their choice.
After the two contenders put forward their arguments for why they should replace Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street, the audience members were asked who they thought had won the argument and they picked Sunak in a show of hands.
It will come as a boost for the British Indian ex-minister who has been trailing Truss in most recent opinion polls, with the last survey putting her around 32 percentage points ahead of Sunak among Tory members. He was asked by an audience member and potential voter if he planned to step aside in the race at any point, given the polling figures.
"The quick answer is no, and that's because I'm fighting for something I really believe in and I'm taking my ideas around the country,” Sunak replied.
"I'm going to fight incredibly hard until the last day of this campaign for each and every one of your votes. The stakes are really high," he declared.
He was also asked why so many senior Tory ministers and figures were endorsing Liz Truss.
”Every stage of the parliamentary process, I had the broadest and biggest support," Sunak pointed out.
”We're all one team, we're all one family, we're going to come together after this and we're going to take it to [Opposition Labour Leader] Keir Starmer and win the next election, because that's the real prize. Plenty of people sat around the Cabinet table also support me. I've been really humbled actually," he said.
The former finance minister stuck to his central plank and focussed his message on the need to get a grip on soaring inflation before cutting taxes.
"But it all starts with not making the situation worse. Because if we just put fuel on the fire of this inflation spiral, all of us, all of you, are just going to end up with higher mortgage rates, savings and pensions that are eaten away, and misery for millions,” he said.
It came just hours after the Bank of England warned of a looming recession as it hiked interest rates. Truss insisted a recession is "not inevitable" and promised "bold" action compared with her rival's caution.
However, Sunak dismissed accusations that it is the tax burden which is causing the recession, saying: "That's simply wrong. What's causing the recession is inflation."
Both candidates received a heavy grilling on their various policy planks, including Brexit, immigration and support for the State-funded National Health Service (NHS). In a separate set of one-on-one grilling during the 90-minute programme, Sunak was questioned about his personal wealth and asked about his reportedly expensive suits and shoes.
"I think the British people judge people by their character and by their actions and not by their bank account," he said, to applause.
One audience member also asked if he believes he "knifed Boris [Johnson] for your own interest."
"I worked with the prime minister for a couple of years and he deserves enormous credit for the work during that time," Sunak said of his former boss.
“[But] the government was on the wrong side of an ethical issue, and enough was enough for me, but also 60 people,” he said, with reference to Cabinet ministers who resigned last month and forced Johnson's hand -- triggering a leadership election.
Ballot papers for the election, to be decided by an estimated 180,000 Tory members, started being mailed out this week. The deadline for votes to be registered, either by postal ballot or online, is the evening of September 2 and the results will be declared on September 5. The winner between Truss and Sunak will go on to take charge as Conservative Party leader and British prime minister right away.