RISHI Sunak has praised Prime Minister Boris Johnson for the Tory power grab on Scotland in a bizarre answer to a question at the Conservative Party leadership hustings in Leeds.

The event, hosted by LBC’s Nick Ferrari, was the first of 12 sessions for the party faithful across the country to question the final two contenders, before voting for the next Tory leader and prime minister closes on September 2. The Scottish hustings will be held in Perth.

Ferrari asked: "When Nicola Sturgeon says Boris Johnson has done great damage to the United Kingdom and the Union, is she right?"

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In reply, Sunak said: "Boris Johnson has made sure, actually, that we passed a piece of legislation that allows us now for the first time to actively go and do things in Scotland and demonstrate the benefit of the Union in places like Scotland.

"He deserves credit for that.

"And that is now allowing us to do something that we could never do before, and it’s making a real difference on the ground."

The National:

Sunak seemed to be referring to the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which is part of the Levelling-Up agenda that sees the Tories able to bypass the Scottish Parliament and take control of funding in devolved areas.

The host did not press Sunak on whether he realised that the UK Government was able to “do things in Scotland” prior to the power grab through the powers reserved to Westminster – for example, through powers on broadband held mostly by the UK.

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It came after a previous question saw Sunak argue that Unionists would lose indyref2 if the No campaign focuses "just on the practicalities”.

Asked how he would keep Scotland in the UK, Sunak said: “We're under real risk. The best things we can do are be firm with Nicola Sturgeon about another referendum.

"We need to make sure that in government in Whitehall that we don't just devolve and forget, which for many years has been the institutional imperative.

The National:

“We as UK Government ministers have to be more active in Scotland, we have to be more active about delivering benefits of the Union on the ground to the people in Scotland and working constructively there to do that.

“And crucially, when you're countering nationalism, we can't just talk in arguments to do with our head.

“It's easy to talk about borrowing and debt and trade and pensions and currency. But ultimately, nationalism is a seductive and romantic idea.

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“So we have got to make arguments about the Union that speak to people's hearts and speak to their emotions.

"Because if we focus just on the practicalities, we will not be successful. And I think we can do that.”

Meanwhile, Liz Truss’s campaign for No 10 was boosted by a major endorsement Defence Secretary Ben Wallace threw his support behind her, as he criticised Sunak for “walking out the door” of Johnson’s Cabinet.

The National:

The candidates were quizzed separately on a vast array of policy areas – as well as their predictions for the Women’s Euro 2022 final – at the hustings as they sought to woo northern voters in the race for the top job.

While they did not address one another directly, tax continued to be a significant dividing line between the pair.

Sunak took a veiled swipe at Truss by saying he would not “embark on a spree, borrowing tens and tens of billions of pounds of unfunded promises and put them on the country’s credit card”.

Meanwhile, Truss criticised windfall taxes – something Sunak imposed as a one-off on energy companies as chancellor.

She said: “I don’t believe in windfall taxes, because they put off future investment.

“What we should be doing is encouraging Shell and other companies to invest in the United Kingdom, because we need to get our productivity up, we need capital investment.”

But she avoided being pinned down on potential changes to inheritance tax.

The National:

“I think our tax system in Britain isn’t working. It’s too complicated. It’s even more complicated than the American tax system which we know is a nightmare,” she said.

“So what I would do is have a complete review of the tax system. I want to make it fairer for families, so if people take time out of work to look after children or elderly relatives they are not penalised. And I would also look at inheritance tax as part of that review.”

The two candidates kicked off the event by making speeches to the audience, with Truss capitalising on her Yorkshire roots.

Referencing her upbringing in Leeds, she said it was “fantastic” to be in her “old stomping ground”, adding that she hoped none of her former teachers were in the audience.

She also mentioned her relocation to Norfolk, the site of her constituency, and the fact she has become a supporter of Norwich City FC.

She said “I do want us to channel the spirit of Don Revie” – a former Leeds United and England manager – because “we need to win”.

“And, my friends, we can win against Keir Starmer, who is a patronising plastic patriot,” she added.

Sunak said he was “having the time of my life” campaigning for the top job.

He outlined his vision to tackle NHS waiting lists, “grip” inflation, and “restore trust, rebuild the economy, reunite our country”.

The former chancellor acknowledged he was trailing Truss in the polls, but vowed to fight for every vote.

He said: “We are going to have to appeal to swing voters in every part of our country. And I believe with all my heart that I am the person, I am the candidate, that gives our party the best opportunity to secure that victory.”

Recent YouGov polling has suggested Sunak has a significant edge over his rival among swing voters – 2019 Tory voters who are deserting the party, even as both candidates are “considerably unpopular” with the public as a whole.