Liz Truss tonight apologised to her former teachers after she was accused of having a ‘pop’ at her former school – while her rival Rishi Sunak said he backed a return to grammar schools.
Mr Sunak rubbished the campaign to put Boris Johnson onto the ballot and denied disloyalty to his former boss after facing a riled Tory voter.
The two leadership candidates are locking horns in Leeds in the bitter race for No 10 – fielding questions on issues as wide as Love Island, Boris Johnson and greyhound racing.
Ms Truss, who has been outspoken about alleged failings when she was schoolgirl in Leeds, quipped: “I hope there are no teachers of mine in the audience, and if there are I’m really, really sorry.”
As The Mirror reported, locals have reacted angrily after she was heard having a ‘pop’ at Roundhay School.
Asked about the controversy, she said that teaching at the school was “patchy”, describing it as an “average comprehensive at the time”.
On the subject of education, Mr Sunak was asked if he would support the return of grammar schools – to which he responded: “Yes.”
He continued: “I believe in educational excellence, I believe education is the most powerful way we can transform people’s lives. But I also think there’s lots we can do with the school system as we have it.”
Pitching herself to voters in the north of England, she said: “I will get Northern Powerhouse Rail built” – referring to the project which was scaled back by Boris Johnson last year.
The outgoing Prime Minister looks set to cast a long shadow over the contest, with more than 14,000 Tory voters calling for him to be included on the ballot.
Mr Sunak was uncompromising – despite applause for the PM from the audience – stating: “You need to be able to command the confidence of your MPs in Parliament and we got to the point where that wasn’t there.”
An audience member reminded Mr Sunak: “He’s the man that made you a senior politician” and accused him of being on “another planet”.
The former Chancellor said he disagreed with Mr Johnson on economic policy, adding: “I was left with no choice but to resign.”
Challenged by LBC host Nick Ferarri over whether he was “flipping and flopping” over VAT on energy bills, he responded: “Oh gosh no, definitely not.”
He said that the measure would be temporary – whereas it would be “un-conservative” to do it permanently – and claimed that Margaret Thatcher would back his economic policies.
Mr Sunak told voters he is “having the time of my life” on the leadership trail, as he battles to overtake Ms Truss, who polls suggest is ahead among Tory members.
But he said: “I know the polls say I’m behind in this race, I know people say this should be a coronation but you know what – I’ve heard that before.
“Seven years ago when I arrived in Richmond (his constituency in Yorkshire) and ultimately the members gave me the greatest honour of my life and selected me as their candidate.”
Both candidates said they had never used illegal drugs, and both identified Margaret Thatcher as their favourite ever Tory party leader.
Ms Truss lashed out at Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, branding him a “patronising plastic patriot” – and said the country needs to channel the spirit of legendary Leeds United manager Don Revie.
Facing a wide variety of questions, she said she was “horrified” by what she saw on ITV series Love Island, telling the audience: “All I can say is I watched it for about 10 minutes with my teenage daughter and I was horrified and turned it off.”
Quizzed about the Owen Patterson scandal, which saw Tories vote for an upheaval of standards rules, she said: “There’s a real need to improve discipline among the Conservatives, but we also need to support our MPs.”
Speaking at the Commonwealth Business Forum in Birmingham, the outgoing PM said the move would be “easier than we thought”.
He made the remark after Mr Sunak was accused of a screeching u-turn over VAT, having previously opposed the move while in Cabinet.
Addressing the race to succeed him, Mr Johnson said: “I’ll give you this assurance, they will continue with the same programme, cutting taxes, simplifying regulation as much as possible, taking advantage of all our new regulatory freedoms, getting rid of every encumbrance from solvency to MiFID to VAT on fuel – turns out to be easier than we thought.”
Making a pitch for voters in Northern England, Ms Truss vowed to reverse Mr Johnson’s decision to scale back the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project.
The wannabe Prime Minister told reporters in Leeds: “I grew up in Leeds, I know how poor the transport is and frankly, it’s not got much better since I was a teenager getting the bus into Leeds city centre.
“What I want to see is really fantastic rail services, better roads so people are able to get into work.
“I’m clear it is absolutely crucial for the future of the north of England.”
Asked how she would afford the scheme, given the vast tax cuts she has pledged, Ms Truss said: “The taxes that I am cutting are affordable within our budget.
“By creating new low tax investment zones in places like West Yorkshire, by enabling the post-Brexit reforms to take place, unleashing more investment from the city, we will grow the economy faster – that will bring in more tax revenue, and that will enable us to afford those projects”.
Health service unions have warned against “another costly shake-up” after Ms Truss suggested she would target “layers of management” in the NHS.
Both she and Mr Sunak both face pressure to explain what their victory in the race for No 10 would mean for the NHS – and how they intend to fund it.
Alarming figures show health services are facing a huge staffing crisis, while battling to clear a backlog of 6.6 million people awaiting planned treatment.
Ms Truss has announced sweeping tax cuts estimated to be worth around £30 billion, but vowed not to decimate public services.
She has not, however, explained how this can be achieved, amid fears of fresh Tory austerity.