The cost-of-living crisis appears set to dominate the latest hustings clash between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak as the Tory leadership rivals prepare to go head to head in Birmingham.
Ms Truss promised to put the West Midlands “at the heart of our economic revival” ahead of the 10th Tory leadership hustings, while Mr Sunak pledged to turn the UK into a “science superpower”.
But soaring costs and rising inflation are likely to dominate the two-hour event in the UK’s second-largest city, amid reports that Foreign Secretary Ms Truss would not ask the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) for a forecast ahead of the measures she is planning for next month, if she becomes prime minister.
It comes amid growing calls for urgent action from the Government to tackle the crisis, even as it was announced that around six million disabled people will receive a £150 cost-of-living payment from the end of September.
Chloe Smith, minister for disabled people and a Truss backer, played down the criticism and insisted the frontrunner “would want to be able to use all the data that is available” if she became prime minister”.
She also said that rather than focus on freezes to the energy price cap, as Labour has demanded, a Truss administration would “look at the longer-term solutions about how to bring energy prices down”.
Mr Sunak, whose criticism of Ms Truss and her economic strategy has dominated the campaign, continues to bat away suggestions that he should exit the race.
In an interview with BBC Radio 2 on Monday, the former chancellor repeated his attacks on Ms Truss while stressing that he continues to receive a positive response while campaigning.
He also appeared to suggest he could decide not to serve in a Truss cabinet, if he was offered a role.
His supporter Robert Halfon, appearing on Sky News on Tuesday, insisted Mr Sunak would not quit the contest.
The senior Tory MP said: “I think he is right to be able to have a chance to set his programme, not just to the membership but to the country.
“The contest will be over very shortly. I think it’s right that members have a choice. It’s still all to play for.”
It came as the chairman of the Treasury Select Committee said he had written to Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, as well as the OBR, to ask whether work is being carried out to prepare for a potential emergency budget.
Mel Stride, who backed Mr Sunak in the contest, has asked for a response by the end of the week.
He said: “Whether such an event is actually called a budget or not is immaterial. The reassurance of independent forecasting is vital in these economically turbulent times.
“To bring in significant tax cuts without a forecast would be ill-advised. It is effectively ‘flying blind’.”
Ahead of the debate Ms Truss set out her plan to boost growth and drive opportunity across the West Midlands.
She said lower taxes, better regulation and supply-side reform will create a favourable environment for the private sector in the region.
Mr Sunak, who called the West Midlands the “birthplace of the first Industrial Revolution”, said he would deliver a “better UK alternative” to the EU’s Horizon funding programme amid a row with the bloc over British participation in the flagship science scheme.
The Sunak campaign accused the EU of dithering and “playing politics” on Horizon, with the funding the UK would normally send to the EU for participation in the programme being used for the rival scheme.
Labour continued to hit out at the two candidates and the “zombie” Downing Street administration.
John Healey, shadow defence secretary and MP for Wentworth and Dearne, told LBC: “What’s needed now is immediate, urgent action to help people deal with the emergency that they face over energy costs and that’s what we want to see – and we’ve seen no sign that either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss is willing to consider this.”
Times Radio’s John Pienaar will present the hustings on Tuesday evening, interviewing each candidate and moderating questions from the audience.
It will be broadcast live on Times Radio from 7pm to 9pm and streamed in vision on the Times Radio YouTube channel.