The Battle for Number 10: A test of the breadth, depth and agility of the country's next PM
At the end of 90 minutes, Liz Truss had a vision, but there was a reluctance to give all the answers. Rishi Sunak was across the issues, but wasn't promising a bold new vision to a party fretful about the polls and the economy.
Friday 5 August 2022 05:48, UK
Rishi Sunak won the audience, but Liz Truss appears to have a grip on the Tory membership in the country.
All the clues as to why both are true could be found in Thursday night's 90-minute Battle for Number 10 on Sky News with Kay Burley, which tested the breadth, depth and agility of the two who would be prime minister on 6 September.
In a unique TV grilling, the flaws and skills of both candidates were on parade in front of a live studio audience.
Repeatedly put on the defensive by Burley, frontrunner Liz Truss showed how she has learnt to borrow from Boris Johnson's playbook when challenged about inconsistencies.
On the basis of this performance, expect Prime Minister Truss to refuse to apologise, rarely offer to explain and assert every criticism as a sign of her strength.
She offered no justification for suggesting the media was to blame for her decision to abandon public sector pay cuts, or any explanation for junking plans to build on the greenbelt.
Trust, for Liz Truss, means fulfilling political promises - despite being part of a cabinet that ditched large sections of the 2019 manifesto - but she suggested avoiding appointing an ethics advisor, another Johnson legacy she is happy to acquire.
But for those paying less attention than the studio audience, so much of this is detail which will be ignored.
Her aim is to provide a vision and an optimism, to suggest restless determination and fearless commitment to change.
Even at this advanced stage in the leadership contest, the cheque book is still out, promising anything else she can to help with the cost of living and hinting at reforming doctors' pensions - another change with a price tag potentially in the billions.
Why not vote for the sort of boosterism and optimism that won the Tories the 2019 general election?
Rishi Sunak, by contrast, was seeking to wean the Conservative party off its addiction to Boris Johnson, but may find it is too soon.
Pragmatic, sensible and detailed, his campaign assumed the Tory membership, and country, would be looking for something different to the man MPs just dragged from Number 10.
A mill stone
His pitch centred around seriousness, hard work and moderation, warning about inflation and the dangers of spiralling debt - themes that won the Tories a general election mandate as recently as 2015.
But fashions fade, and from the audience questioning, it was clear his record is his legacy, being challenged over whether he was plotting against Johnson, and whether he bears responsibility for some of the woes the Bank of England is warning about.
The very experience he sought to capitalise on, now becomes a mill stone, as opponents - partly unfairly - brand him a traitor to Johnson (as he pointed out, he was one of 60 ministers to resign to force this contest) who failed on growth by accepting economic orthodoxy.
At the end of 90 minutes, Liz Truss had a vision, but there was a reluctance to give all the answers.
Rishi Sunak was across the issues, but wasn't promising a bold new vision to a party fretful about the polls and the economy.
More clearly than ever before, the Sky News special programme showed this race is Mr Sensible versus the disruptor.
Team Sunak was delighted with what it saw, but with time running out, will the membership resist the excitement of the journey to the unknown that Liz Truss promises will take them?