The two contenders vying to be the next Prime Minister have faced growing calls to spell out how they would help with the energy price spike after forecasts showed average bills could hit £4,200 in the new year, leading to critics arguing the country faces a ‘tsunami of human suffering’.

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak came up against each other in another husting’s showdown in front of Conservative party members as the pair visited Darlington on Tuesday.  

The pair travelled to the North East as part of a UK tour of leadership debates which have been dominated with questions over how the country can cope with the cost-of-living crisis and rising energy bills.  

Asked about what she would do to deal with rising fuel prices, Ms Truss told the hustings audience: “We are facing great difficulties with energy. I understand people are struggling with their bills on fuel and food but the first thing we should do as Conservatives is help people have more of their own money. 

Read more: LIVE - Darlington hosts Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss leadership hustings debate

“What I don’t support is taking money off people in tax and then giving it back to them in handouts. That to me is Gordon Brown economics. 

“Frankly we had years of that under Labour and what we got was a slow-growth economy and we didn’t get the opportunities, we didn’t get the enterprise, we didn’t get the new jobs in places like Darlington, which is one of the reasons people voted Conservative.” 

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She added: “What I fundamentally don’t agree with is putting up taxes and then also giving out benefits. I think that is the wrong approach.” 

But speaking after taking to the stage first Mr Sunak suggested he would not offer further cash payments to every household and would instead target support at the most vulnerable. 

Asked if he is planning support like earlier plans of providing £400 to every household regardless of their income, the former chancellor said: “No, because I think what we need to do is target our support for the most vulnerable.” 

At the debate inside the Darlington Hippodrome, support among party members for Rishi Sunak outweighed that for Liz Truss, but the event being held next door to the former chancellor’s constituency may have contributed to the larger backing.    

MPs and political figures from across North East were also in attendance, equally exuberant in their support for each candidate, but the leadership race will ultimately rest on the votes of the thousands of Tory party members around the UK.  

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In a straw poll of the audience – journalist Tom Newton Dunn, who hosted the debate, reckoned around 10-15 per cent of the audience were undecided between Truss and Sunak, compared to 40 per cent at the start if of the night. 

On the topic of levelling up, Richmond MP Mr Sunak told the crowd: “I put the Treasury in Darlington because I wanted to send a loud message to Whitehall that there is more to the North than Manchester. And I tell you this… if this works out, it won’t just be called the Treasury Campus in Darlington, it will be the Downing Street Campus in Darlington.” 

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Meanwhile Liz Truss talked of an “aspiration nation” under her potential premiership and said she would work to take more seats in the so-called Red Wall from Labour in future elections if she becomes prime minister. 

Ms Truss described the 2019 general election as a “massive demolition job” for Labour in its traditional northern heartlands, including in former prime minister Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency. 

Ms Truss said: “As Blair himself would say, things can only get better. If you select me to be your prime minister, I will work to take new seats in the North East – Wansbeck, I will work to take Sunderland, and I will work to win big. And I know we can do it.” 

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