Rishi Sunak vs Liz Truss: Tory Party Braces Itself For A Bruising Six Weeks
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will spend the next six weeks battling it out to be the next Prime Minister, in a one-on-one contest that Tory figures fear could be so vicious that it inflicts yet more damage on the Conservative party brand.
Despite the best efforts of wildcard candidates Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch, in the end it was the long-standing leadership frontrunners – and only two members of Boris Johnson's Cabinet in the running – who made it onto the final ballot this week, after securing the most support from Conservative MPs in votes held in Parliament.
While Sunak was the most popular choice among Tory MPs, receiving 137 votes compared with Truss' 113, he actually heads into the next stage of the contest as the underdog in terms of popularity among Conservative party members, with polls giving Truss a commanding lead over the former Chancellor.
A striking YouGov poll published on Friday gave the Foreign Secretary a 24 per cent lead over Sunak.
The pair will spend the next month going head-to-head in regional hustings around the country, as well as in televised debates, with the members having until 2 September to vote for their preferred next leader.
The winner – and the next Prime Minister – will be announced on 5 September.
The former Cabinet colleagues will face off in a BBC debate on Monday, before heading to Leeds on Thursday for their first regional hustings with an audience of Conservative party members.
Crucially, party members will receive their ballot papers on 5 August, meaning they are able to start casting their votes as soon as in two weeks' time, despite voting not closing until four weeks later.
This timetable means that Sunak is under huge pressure to put in his strongest performance immediately, as he does not have a great deal of time to change the mind of members who currently favour Truss. He is expected to make a number of TV appearances and attend lots of events with local Tory parties in a bid to grow his popularity with the membership.
Sunak backers argue that while current polling doesn't make happy reading for the former chancellor, the race remains volatile and support for Truss reflected in the polling is soft, and her supporters could easily turn at the slighest misstep.
They point to the 2005 Conservative party leadership contest, when former Prime Minister David Cameron started in a similar position to Sunak, but ended up overtaking his rivals, thanks largely to a conference speech in Blackpool which received a standing ovation.
Sunak may also benefit from a change to leadership contest voting rules which means members will be able to change their vote midway through the contest. That is because they will have two ways of voting – a physical ballot and online submission – and they will be allowed to exercise both.
If a member does cast two votes, only the later one will be recorded.
The former Chancellor will hammer home his claim that only he can beat Keir Starmer's Labour at the next general election, and hope that this wins over the party membership.
A big problem for Sunak is that Truss' promise to cut tax as soon as she enters Number 10 has gone down better with the members than his pledge to slash tax only once the country has gripped inflation.
He is also in the difficult – and rather paradoxical – position of being less popular with Brexit-voting members of the Conservative party, who account for around 75 per cent of the overall membership. This is despite Sunak campaigning for Leave in 2016, while Truss campaigned to stay in the EU.
Truss-backer Greg Smith, the Conservative MP for Buckingham, was keen to talk up Truss' Brexit credentials when he appeared on PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown on Thursday, pointing to the hard line she has taken with Brussels as lead negotiator in the ongoing stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
"Brexit is still a thing within this debate and we know that the party membership at large is much more Brexit-y than Remain-y," he said.
"We've left the EU and moved on from that fundamental debate.
"But it will play a huge part and Liz is the one who has piloted the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through Parliament. It passed its third reading yesterday [Wednesday] and is off to the House of Lords now.
"That is still going to be playing on the minds of people across the country."
There is widespread concern within the party that Sunak and Truss will use the campaign to kick lumps out of each other between now and early September, leaving Boris Johnson's successor with a party that the general public views as being horrifically divided.
Simon Hart, the former Secretary of States for Wales and Sunak backer, insisted on this week's episode of The Rundown that his candidate's plan was "to be as positive as possible".
"This isn't an opportunity to slag each other off," said the ex-Cabinet minister.
But the contest has already been a bruising one – even by the brutal standards of the notoriously volatile Tory party.
Sunak has mocked Truss' past support for the Liberal Democrats and warned that she is an election loser, while Truss has taken a swipe at Sunak's privileged upbringing and said that his tax rises, which he argues is sensible economic policy, will probably push the country into a recession.
The pair pulled out of a Sky debate earlier this week as a result of a shared fear that the tone of the previous debates was trashing the party's brand in the eyes of the nation, live on television.
Labour leader Starmer said gleefully this week that the contest had been very helpful.
"Having gone through a really hard few years in the Labour Party, it is very nice to see the Conservative party tearing itself apart and providing me with such brilliant material to attack them," he told Sky News.
Whether Sunak and Truss will be able to resist the temptation of more personal attacks in their battle for the keys to 10 Downing Street remains to be seen.
Here is full list of regional hustings:
28 July: Leeds
1 August: Exeter
3 August: Cardiff
5 August: Eastbourne
9 August: Darlington
11 August: Cheltenham
16 August: Perth
17 August: Belfast
19 August: Manchester
23 August: Birmingham
25 August: Norwich
31 August: London
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