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Rishi Sunak's Bewildered Campaign Is Running Out Of Time To Turn Things Around

5 min read

Just one of the twelve Tory leadership hustings has taken place but already the question being discussed within the party is whether Rishi Sunak's bid to succeed Boris Johnson is all but over.

As Tory leadership contenders begin their tour of the country to make their case to voting members, Liz Truss is in a position of strength that only a couple of weeks ago seemed unlikely.

The Foreign Secretary was accused of a slow start to the contest, and at one stage it looked like Penny Mordaunt would be more likely to join Sunak, who retained a consistent lead throughout the parliamentary voting stage of the contest, on the final ballot at her expense. 

But now, even with nearly six weeks and eleven regional hustings to go, there is a growing belief within the Conservative party that the top job in 10 Downing Street is hers to lose.

Polling of Tory members continues to give Truss big leads over Sunak, while at the same time her debate performances have become markedly more assured and relaxed.

She received a major boost on Thursday when Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who not long ago was seen as a favourite to be the next Prime Minister, gave her his highly-coveted endorsement.

On Friday, former leadership contender Tom Tugendhat indicated his support for Truss, despite many of his supporters from the early in the competition not viewing the foreign secretary favourably. 

Tugendhat's endorsement of Truss prompted fury among Sunak backers, with the Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair accused of being "self serving" and a "sell out". One Sunak supporter likened the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair to Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary, who backed Johnson in 2019 after running as the moderate candidate.

There is bewilderment in the Sunak campaign over the size of the Truss' leads over the ex-Chancellor in recent polling of the Conservative party membership, as they feel the figures do not square with the in-person feedback they have received from members on the campaign trail.

There is a belief – and a hope – within his campaign that some Tory card-carriers are "shy Rishis" – members who like Sunak but are afraid to say so due to the ferocity of the attacks on him by heavyweights supporting Truss. 

Sunak backers also believe that support for the Foreign Secretary is soft, and that large numbers of members are open to changing their mind.

“The reality is that the members had this election forced upon them, it’s a bit of a surprise for them," said one minister who is supporting Sunak.

"They're taking time to really think about what they want. The don’t knows are big in this competition and they are up for grabs."

But that's not to say there aren't criticisms of Sunak's campaign.

The same minister told PoliticsHome that the former chancellor needed to convey a more compelling message about his vision for the country which goes beyond being the fiscally sensible candidate.

They said he should revisit the “sense of urgency and energy” that he invoked in the first few days of his campaign, when he warned that a “business-as-usual” mentality would not be enough to tackle the myriad crises facing the country, and vowed to put his government on a “crisis footing”.

Another senior Conservative MP who is backing Sunak said he needed to be more positive and talk more about the opportunities available to the country, and less about the hard times ahead.

“People want to hear about sunny uplands, not the dark, satanic mills," they said.

The same Conservative MP, who is a former minister, admitted that Sunak's performance in the BBC debate on Monday, for which he was accused of "mansplaining" to Truss after interrupting her on numerous occasions, had done damage to his campaign.

"He obviously decided that he had to make an impression at Monday’s debate but that impression was aggressive, and it has hurt him," they said. "He needs to do more traditional Rishi, which is being approachable and someone who has an ability to connect with people.”

Even Sunak backers who believe he can still become Prime Minister on 5 September accept that time is not on his side, with a significant number of Conservative party members expected to cast their ballots in the first two weeks of August – long before voting closes on 2 September.

Conservative MPs in the "ABT" (anyone but Truss) camp are urging Sunak-backing colleagues to go to their local associations and stress the importance of choosing the candidate they believe has the best chance of winning the next general election, which must take place before the end of 2024.

While polling says Truss is the most popular candidate among Tory members, polling of the general public has indicated that Sunak is the candidate best placed to defeat Keir Starmer's Labour at the next general election.

“If people don’t do anything to encourage members to do what they think is the best solution, then they’ll end up with the result that they really wanted to avoid," said one "ABT" Tory.

Sunak was unable to land the clear blows that he would have been hoping for when the pair locked horns for their first regional hustings in Leeds on Thursday evening.

The former Chancellor’s performance was solid, with the 1,500 Conservative party members in attendance warming to him as his Q&A progressed, giving him several rounds of applause.

But Truss was received just as warmly, if not more so, and unlike Sunak wasn’t accused by an attendee of “stabbing” Johnson “in the back” for his role in the Prime Minister’s fall.

The next leadership hustings will take place in Exeter on Monday, followed by debates in Cardiff and Eastbourne, and then trip to "red wall" Darlington in the north east.

These head-to-heads will be key to whether Sunak can turn things around. 

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