Liz Truss has refused to commit to extra support for families struggling with the cost of living after analysts delivered a shock warning that energy bills could top £4,200 in the new year.
The two remaining contenders in the Tory leadership race faced renewed calls to spell out how they would help after Cornwall Insight forecast average bills could hit about £3,582 in October, from £1,971 today, before rising further in January.
Former chancellor Rishi Sunak has said he has “no doubt” extra support will be needed to get people through the winter, and he is “confident” he can find the money needed to ease the burden from Government efficiency savings.
Ms Truss again insisted her priority was driving through tax cuts to kick-start the economy.
Speaking during a campaign visit to Huddersfield, the Foreign Secretary said that if she became prime minister she would “see what the situation is like” in the autumn.
However, in a fresh swipe at Mr Sunak’s record at the Treasury, she said that with the tax burden at a 70-year high, the priority had to be economic growth, with a package of emergency tax cuts.
“What I am talking about is enabling people to keep more money in their own pockets,” she said.
“What I don’t believe in is taxing people to the highest level in 70 years and then giving them their own money back. We are Conservatives. We believe in low taxes.
“Of course, we will need to deal with the circumstances as they arise. We will see what the situation is like in the autumn, but I am committed to making sure people are supported and I am committed to growing the economy.”
Mr Sunak, in an interview with ITV News, claimed Ms Truss’s tax-cutting plans will not provide “any help” for the least well-off.
He acknowledged he is “definitely the underdog” in the race to be the next prime minister, but said he is “giving it absolutely everything I’ve got”.
The former chancellor also addressed his controversial comments about diverting funding from “deprived urban areas”, insisting it is “incredibly wrong” to suggest there is no poverty elsewhere.
According to the New Statesman magazine, the Tory leadership hopeful told party members in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, that he had started changing public funding formulas to ensure “areas like this are getting the funding they deserve”.
But Mr Sunak told ITV “it’s not about Tunbridge Wells”, arguing that he had been speaking to people in a “broader rural area”.
Asked if the Treasury was pumping too much money into places like the site of his interview on Tuesday, near Newcastle, he said: “Yeah.”
He added: “There are pockets of poverty that exist everywhere. They’re not just in big urban cities. They’re in small towns. They’re in smaller cities. They are in rural areas. There’s poverty everywhere that we need to tackle and make sure gets the investment it needs.”
Earlier, Money Saving Expert’s Martin Lewis appealed to the two contenders to bury their differences to tackle the problem together, warning the country was facing a “national cataclysm”.
“They are all in the same party, let’s call on them to come together for the good of the nation rather than personal point-scoring,” he said.
Ms Truss has been under fire from Mr Sunak after she suggested at the weekend that there should be no more “handouts”.
A spokesman for his campaign said: “Liz Truss has doubled down, refusing five times to say she will provide direct support for British families and pensioners this winter.
“Liz’s plan will not touch the sides for the majority of British families this winter and pensioners will get no help whatsoever. It seems she is divorced from reality.”
Mr Sunak has pointed out that, as chancellor, he provided £15.3 billion in targeted support for families – with at least £1,200 for eight million of the most vulnerable households.
In a statement, he said that if he became prime minister, he would act again once it became clear how much bills would rise.
However, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who is backing Ms Truss, said the scale of the impending price rises meant it was “fraudulent” to suggest the problem could be resolved by Government alone.
“We are all feeling it in our pocket. And the idea there is a magic wand coming out of Whitehall – no matter who is prime minister, including the Labour Party – is fraudulent to say so,” he said.
Ms Truss also hit back at a warning by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who supports Mr Sunak, that her plan for emergency tax cuts was an “electoral suicide note” that could let in a Labour government.
“I don’t agree with these portents of doom. I don’t agree with this declinist talk, I believe our country’s best days are ahead of us,” she said.
Writing in The Times on Tuesday, Mr Raab said it could prove “economically harmful and politically fatal” for the Conservatives if they failed to protect people’s standard of living.
“Such a failure will read unmistakably to the public like an electoral suicide note and, as sure as night follows day, see our great party cast into the impotent oblivion of opposition,” he said.