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Liz Truss Plays Down Lead In Race To Be Prime Minister As Rishi Sunak Admits He Is “Playing Catch-Up”

Liz Truss Plays Down Lead In Race To Be Prime Minister As Rishi Sunak Admits He Is “Playing Catch-Up”

Liz Truss has picked up further high-profile endorsements such as Tom Tugendhat as she leads the race to be PM (Alamy)

6 min read

The frontrunner to be the next Prime Minister, Liz Truss, has played down her lead over rival Rishi Sunak after he admitted he is “playing catch-up”.

As ballots in the Tory leadership are set to drop through members’ letterboxes this week, the Foreign Secretary is believed to be in pole position to replace Boris Johnson in Number 10.

But Truss has insisted it is a "very, very close race,” even as her campaign was further buoyed by endorsements from party heavyweights this weekend, with former contender for PM Tom Tugendhat giving her his backing alongside ex-Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis.

During a campaign stop in Bromley she was asked if her advantage over Sunak in surveys of Conservative members meant the contest is hers to lose, but told reporters: "This is a very, very close race, and I am fighting for every vote.”

She said she was "absolutely delighted" to get Tugendhat's support, but described it as "extremely premature" to say whether she would appoint him to replace her as Foreign Secretary in her Cabinet if she was to win.

"He is a very, very talented person and I'm very grateful to have the support from right across all parts of the Conservative Party because we need to reunite after this leadership election,” Truss added.

Her latest policy announcements include a six-point plan on education, under which she promised that pupils with top A level grades would get an automatic invitation to apply for Oxbridge and other prestigious universities.

Branding herself the "education Prime Minister", she also vowed to replace failing academies with "a new wave of free schools" and improve maths and literacy standards.

Repeating her claims about her own experience, she said she saw "first hand how children were failed and let down by low expectations" during her time at a comprehensive in Leeds, despite criticism from political leaders in the city, and former pupils and staff at the Roundhay School.

Truss, a former education minister, also said she would aim to give working parents access to childcare around the school day, and extend the range of providers who accept government entitlements.

Meanwhile Sunak, who faces an uphill battle to win over Tory members, spent yesterday visiting a number of key southern constituencies, tweeting a picture of himself with supporters saying: "Busy Saturday meeting hundreds of members. Wouldn't have it any other way!”

Although a survey by BMG Research of party faithful for the i newspaper put Truss ahead with a double-digit lead, he would have been buoyed by a survey of Tory councillors which put the two contenders nearly neck-and-neck.

The Savanta ComRes poll put Truss on 31 per cent and Sunak on 28 per cent among 511 local Conservative politicians, which led to a spokesperson for the ex-Chancellor’s campaign saying the contest “is all to play for," adding: “The race has only just begun.”

He also unveiled a new policy blitz designed to revive his flagging campaign, including slashing the number of shuttered shops on Britain's high streets, allowing tougher punishment for graffiti and littering, and expanding police powers to tackle anti-social behaviour.

"I want to slash the number of empty shops by 2025 and make sure that they are turned into thriving local assets, supporting skills, local businesses, economies and creating jobs,” he said.

"They will be joined by vital public services – like police stations and job centres.

"I'll also support covered markets and farmers markets, making it as easy as possible for them to trade on our high streets and sell their fantastic produce to local people.”

Sunak also pledged to end "woke nonsense”, while also disputing claims from his supporters that his unpopularity was due to "latent racism".

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph he said: "I absolutely don't think that's a factor in anyone's decision. I just don't think that's right.”

Sunak also revealed his plan to reform the NHS would include a temporary £10 fine for patients who fail to attend a GP or outpatient appointment.

"If we have people who are not showing up and taking those slots away from people who need it, that's not right," he told the newspaper. "I'm all for a healthcare system that's free at the point of use, but not one that's free at the point of misuse."

He added: "Yes, it means we have to do something brave and something different, but that's what I'm about doing. I want to be a transformational prime minister."

Earlier he attempted to take on Truss on so-called culture war issues that appeal to the right of the party by pledging to prevent "left-wing agitators" from taking "a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values”.

But Sunak was dealt a blow by accusations he blocked efforts to overcome the Brexit impasse with the European Union by Brandon Lewis as he declared his support for Truss.

The ex-Northern Ireland secretary said he trusts the Foreign Secretary more to achieve a swift return to powersharing in Stormont if she becomes Prime Minister.

One of Truss’ high-profile Cabinet backers, the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, has drawn criticism for retweeting an image showing Sunak stabbing Boris Johnson in the back.

It was branded "dangerous" by fellow Conservative MP Greg Hands, who told Sky News the social media post was "appalling," especially after Sir David Amess was stabbed to death in his constituency last year.

But an ally of Dorries, who is backing Truss in the leadership race, said: "It's quite obviously a satirical image of Brutus and Ceasar which has been clearly photoshopped to provide political commentary.”

It is not the the first time the Culture Secretary has caused controversy on social media by tweeting about the leadership contest, having compared Sunak's expensive suits to Truss’ earrings from Claire's Accessories.

In a piece for the Daily Mail on Saturday she said the post was meant to "alert Tory members not to be taken in by appearances in the way that happened to many of us who served with the chancellor in Cabinet."

Dorries added: "The assassin's gleaming smile, his gentle voice and even his diminutive stature had many of us well and truly fooled."

Meanwhile Johnson, who remains in Downing Street for another five weeks, spent the weekend at a lavish party in the Cotswolds hosted Tory donor Lord Bamford’s country estate to celebrate his wedding to wife Carrie.

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