SEVERAL years ago I gently suggested to a candidate in a Tory leadership election contest that you have to be slightly mad to want to be Prime Minister. He raised an eyebrow and replied: “Slightly?”

Given all the array of problems the next inhabitant of Number 10 will face – rising inflation, the cross-Channel illegal migrant numbers, the continuing Covid pandemic, the climate change emergency and the ongoing war in Ukraine – I’m beginning to think the former candidate (who, incidentally, never made it into Downing Street), was right.

At present, the central battleground between the two would-be PMs is on tax; when to cut and what to cut.

Rishi Sunak, in his pitch to the Right, has promised a “return to traditional Conservative economic values” and enthusiastically declared in the Daily Telegraph yesterday: “I am a Thatcherite. I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite.” Not something, I would suggest, that will go down particularly well with many Scots.

But the former Chancellor is clearly hoping his invocation of the Iron Lady will remind party members how she didn’t make big tax cuts early on in her premiership, but concentrated on getting the economy in a better place first before reducing people’s taxes.

Sunak, professing prudence, insists the Government should prioritise “gripping” inflation and not adding to the country’s debt burden, which would only have to be passed onto our children. The suggestion is he will set out his plan to reduce taxes in the “medium term,” once inflation is on a downward trajectory. It was reported yesterday the Yorkshire MP would not cut taxes before autumn 2023, making the difference even starker with Liz Truss, who would cut taxes swiftly.

Sunak has accused his rival of promoting “socialism” by promising unfunded tax cuts and dismissed her plan to “borrow your way out of inflation” as a “fairy-tale”.

Meantime, Truss, an ex-Liberal Democrat and former Remainer, who has all the zealotry of a Brexit convert, has warned how Sunak’s “business-as-usual” economic approach would push Britain into recession.

She claims her £30bn plan to reduce taxes – scrapping the National Insurance hike and the planned increase in Corporation Tax – would “decrease inflation”.

However, Sunak and most leading economists think the very opposite, which has prompted the Foreign Secretary to accuse them of “peddling the wrong policies”. She has also hit out at Treasury “orthodoxy,” which, she argued, had failed to deliver significant growth for the past 20 years.

It just shows how an undercurrent of disharmony and division flowed through the Johnson Government.

One Tory strategist told The Times that many party members’ concern was how Sunak had presided over multiple tax rises and large spending increases. “The tax rises screwed him. You don’t raise taxes at the same time as you’re seen to be splurging on public spending.”

So, perhaps Sunak might seek to turn the focus more on what he regards might be his trump card; that he has a greater chance than Truss of winning the next General Election. He insisted: “I am the only person with the experience and grip to lead our great country through the most serious of times.” To put it another way: choose Truss and get Keir Starmer in Downing Street in 2024.

Yesterday, Truss dangled a new tax policy before members, saying that if she became PM she would instigate a review to allow households to be treated as single tax entities to prevent people being penalised financially for taking time off work to care for family members or children.

Intriguingly, both candidates have been professing their undying love of the Union.Truss, who will relentlessly remind every Scot of her Paisley upbringing, described herself as a “child of the Union”, and, when asked if the Scots loved her, replied: “Probably some Scots love me, I can tell you that.”

Sunak stressed how he would try to make an “emotional argument for the UK from the heart as well as the practical argument for it and demonstrating it”. Although ahead of the Scottish hustings in Perth on August 16, it might be to his advantage if someone told him that Darlington was not in Scotland.

Not surprisingly, both have said no to Indyref2.

While Truss is regarded as the favourite – only just – the six-week campaign, during which she and Sunak will attend 12 hustings across Britain, will focus minds and could change opinions.

Despite pulling out of Tuesday’s Sky debate because of the rancour and recrimination in the ITV head-to-head, the two candidates have agreed to appear together this coming Monday on the BBC, which they will repeat on Sky on August 4.

This latter debate could prove critical as it will come just 24 hours before members receive their postal ballots. As the supposed underdog, time will be of the essence for Sunak. He may not have much of it because, it’s thought, most members return their ballots pretty quickly or even immediately.

It’s interesting to note that given the profile of the Tory Party membership – half are aged over 60, 97% are white, with a male majority from southern England – that newspapers may have a significant role in influencing the contest’s outcome.

Already the Mail has become a fervent drum-beater for Truss while the Times has come out for Sunak.

One thing that the Conservative membership of around 150,000 should bear in mind is that it’s abundantly clear the candidate Labour wants in Downing Street is Truss, because it believes, probably rightly, she is less appealing to the general public, nowhere more so perhaps than in Scotland.

The consensus at Westminster and outwith the Tory Party is that if the membership acted sensibly, it would opt for the former Chancellor. But, chances are, it will choose instinctively and put the Norfolk MP in Number 10.

The election of Boris Johnson in December 2019, with all the controversy that ensued, may once again prove that in a party’s victory lie the seeds of its ultimate defeat.