You could say that the former chancellor’s greatest strength and greatest weakness in this leadership race is the economy – a dynamic that emerged during the hour-long debate.
Mr. Sunak, a former financier who has served as both Chief Secretary of the Treasury and Chancellor, seemed at ease discussing the nuances of macroeconomics.
But he also had to defend the government’s record while he was chancellor, pushing the tax burden to its 70-year high and spending approaching its 50-year high.
During the debate, Mr Sunak tried to counter attacks on himself as a ‘socialist chancellor’ by making a similar accusation against his two biggest rivals in this race.
In a joke addressed to Liz Truss, the Secretary of State, he said, “I’d love to stand here and say, ‘I’ll cut this tax, that tax, and another tax and it’ll be all right.’ But it won’t.”
He added: “This something-for-nothing economy is not conservatism. It’s socialism.”
Ms Truss wants to reverse the increase in Sunak’s national insurance contributions and the increase in corporate tax.
Mr Sunak also tried to convince Penny Mordaunt, the Commerce Secretary, of her suggestion that she would abandon his pledge not to borrow for everyday expenses.
“It’s not just wrong, it’s dangerous. And you know what, even Jeremy Corbyn [the former Labour leader] not gone that far,” said Mr Sunak. He later repeated, “Literally, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t go that far.”
The attacks were an attempt to double down on his core argument: that healthy money is as conservative a principle as tax cuts. But his refusal to promise major new tax cuts has also met with a lot of incoming fire.
Mr Sunak may have seemed most misguided when he was made to defend his record as chancellor, not least as to why the economy under his watch is at risk of slipping into recession.
He also long defended the wealth of his Indian billionaire father-in-law, Narayana Murthy, saying the rags-to-riches story was fundamentally “conservative.”
Mr Sunak also targeted Liz Truss for her support for Remain in the debate and beyond.
In a video posted to Twitter shortly before the debate started, he claimed he was a “true Brexiteer from day one” after showing a screenshot of a tweet from Ms Truss showing her during a Stronger In campaign event.