Rishi’s mad dash: can he catch up with Truss?

Why Sunak suddenly finds himself facing defeat

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

30 July 2022

9:00 AM

Just a couple of weeks ago, Rishi Sunak was the clear bookies’ favourite in the Tory leadership contest. He had the largest parliamentary support and was set to top every round of MPs’ voting. He had 20,000 volunteers, a well-organised team, a slick launch – and (he thought) all of August to convince party members that he was the real deal. His strength, his supporters argued, was a firmer grasp of policy and better verbal dexterity than his opponents. So the final format – a dozen head-to-head debates – would give him time to win.

Then, disaster. The Tories became paranoid that the unions could sabotage the process with a Royal Mail strike, so Conservative campaign headquarters announced they would send out the voting papers almost as soon as the final two had been selected. They did delay this a little after an outcry from the campaign teams, but only by a week. As one sceptical MP puts it: ‘There’s little point having a seven-week contest if the ballots drop at the beginning.’

So rather than a long summer, Sunak finds himself with barely a week to close what suddenly seems to be a big gap. A YouGov poll found Tory members backing Liz Truss by a margin of 24 points, so Sunak badly needs everything to go right. That seems a stretch. Although he narrowly won with the general public in last week’s BBC debate, Truss came out on top in polling of the Tory membership. Sunak’s attempt to catch up on Tuesday was thwarted when the moderator fainted and the debate was called off. Potentially, he now has only days to close the gap.

‘It could all be over before we even get to mid-August,’ predicts a government aide. Members – like Tory voters at large – tend to vote quickly; typically, just over half by return of post. ‘The dynamics of the race are that people vote very early and people have made up their minds,’ says a seasoned MP. Although the rules technically allow members to vote a second time online if they change their mind over the summer – with the last ballot cast the one that’s counted – neither camp expects this to be a big change factor. ‘In the nicest way possible, most of the membership are not on apps,’ says one campaign worker.

Publicly, neither side will admit that this is the decisive moment – at the risk of sounding either complacent or as though they are about to give up the fight. But it’s heavily factored into their strategies. ‘The next two weeks are super-important,’ says a Truss supporter. ‘It’s absolutely a sprint.’ Given her seemingly unassailable poll lead, Truss is limiting her exposure to risky media (she passed on an invitation to be interviewed by Andrew Neil) and is focusing on meeting members.

Sunak is doing as many media appearances as he can (including an interview with Charles Moore) and mixing up his initial offerings with red-meat policy announcements and even tax-cutting. After insisting for the first part of the campaign that now is not the time, he has rushed out an announcement to woo supporters by temporarily axing VAT on energy bills – despite arguing against it when chancellor. ‘He must be desperate,’ snipes a member of the Truss camp.

In a sign of the urgency, his performance in their first head-to-head debate was so energetic that it prompted a Truss spokesman to declare ‘he is not fit for office’, because ‘his aggressive mansplaining and shouty private-school behaviour is desperate, unbecoming and a gift to Labour’. Or as another put it after the debate: ‘Rishi is a disgrace.’

‘He doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his body,’ an ally hits back. ‘It just shows he has fire in his belly and passion for the country. The stakes are really high.’

The hope within Team Sunak is that there is still much to play for. Elections have seldom gone as expected in recent years, and the polling excludes a large number of ‘don’t knows’. It’s also the view of Sunak supporters that Truss’s base is much softer than Johnson’s was. ‘It will be close,’ predicts one Sunak backer. ‘We’re gaining ground,’ adds a second.

His campaign will now adopt a three-pronged approach. As well as doing more media, he will meet more members. ‘The one thing we do know is as soon as he meets people he has charm,’ says an ally. He will also double down on his economic message – that only he has the right approach to get a grip on inflation and that Truss’s plans would be unfunded and generally ruinous.

This is where the two candidates vary most – with the Foreign Secretary alleging that Sunak’s proposals will lead to a recession and him retorting that hers will lead to an interest-rates rise that could hurt home-owners across the land. In the BBC debate, Sunak seized on suggestions that her plans could see rates rise as high as 7 per cent. ‘Many of our voters are home-owners; if interest rates rise it matters to them,’ says a backer. Team Rishi believes that polling already shows this is creating doubt in the minds of Truss supporters. The economist Patrick Minford, source of the 7 per cent figure, says he was misquoted and meant 3 per cent.

Yet the very tone of the campaign so far is giving Truss’s people confidence. Sunak may be able to point to wider electoral appeal but he has so far offered little to excite the grassroots. ‘Liz trails on electability and likeability, but remember we elected Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. Our members have their own priorities – they don’t really care as much about the big picture,’ argues a senior MP. ‘Voters’ emotion will trump their logic.’

The Truss message is one of optimism, even if its realism has been questioned. ‘They [Team Sunak] are running a pretty negative campaign,’ says a Truss backer. ‘If people think there is an imaginary river, you don’t tell them there isn’t, you build them an imaginary bridge.’ This is why Truss has been quick to accuse Sunak of peddling Project Fear – despite the fact she was on the other side of it during the Remain campaign.

But there’s another factor making it difficult for Sunak to make up the difference: vengeance. As Lord Heseltine famously said: ‘He who wields the knife never wears the crown.’ ‘There is a small but powerful sense he backstabbed Boris,’ says a senior Tory. ‘It’s not fatal but it’s quite a tricky place to come from.’

Neither Boris Johnson nor his loyalists have been particularly subtle about their anger towards Sunak. They blame him rather than a series of No. 10 scandals for the PM’s demise. An unapologetic Johnson made plenty of thinly veiled references to this in his farewell address at Prime Minister’s Questions, and his supporters have made it clear they don’t think Sunak should succeed him. The Twitter account of Truss backer Nadine Dorries is effectively an attack outlet. She made headlines for calling Sunak out on his fancy clothes while praising the fact Truss’s earrings were from Claire’s Accessories. When pressed, Truss refused to disown the attacks. ‘Nadine is poisonous,’ complains one Sunak supporter. Others worry that he doesn’t have the killer instinct required to deal with this level of vitriol.

While Sunak is expected to fare well in the south and Scotland, much of the new membership joined in 2019 under Boris (some 10,000 of them want him reinstated) and could be more susceptible to the idea that he stabbed Johnson. ‘In focus groups in the Red Wall, there are voters who are angry Johnson is gone,’ says a Labour staffer.

As the campaign progresses, the consensus in the parliamentary party is moving towards a Truss victory. ‘Prime Minister Truss seems to be the accepted wisdom now,’ says a senior Tory. ‘Rishi has good arguments and is a better debater but he is running out of ways to change it dramatically.’ Ambitious MPs who backed other candidates are suddenly speaking positively of the Truss campaign and finding virtues in a politician they once dismissed. There are also whispers that some who have kept their powder dry could come out publicly for her soon.

But the contest is not over yet – and the other way to reduce the distance between the competitors is for the frontrunner to fall. The view among Sunak supporters had been that this could happen in debates and media interviews – but Truss plans to avoid many of these. Ultimately, she has more to lose. ‘We believe we have the popular narrative to take to the country and should now focus on a co-ordinated ground war,’ insists a staffer.

As for the hustings, her performance is improving. She is more relaxed after fighting tooth and nail to make the final two. In the minutes leading up to Monday’s head-to-head, Truss prepared by playing ‘Uptown Funk’ in her green room – telling aides who asked if she was nervous that ‘there was a rod of iron’ in her. ‘She’s enjoying it,’ insists a member of her team.

There is one niggle of doubt among MPs: if Truss is really so far ahead, why do her supporters keep going on the attack so vehemently? It suggests they still view Sunak as an active threat.

If Truss does go all the way, there are those who are trepidatious. ‘She only has the support of a third of the party,’ says an MP and former whip. ‘It will be hard for her to push things through. If she’s smart, she’ll quickly embark on a reshuffle that unifies the party.’ Truss has said she would love Sunak to be in her cabinet, but the real question is whether he would want any job she was prepared to offer. Those close to her suggest she’s unlikely to offer him a great office of state, and if she did it’s still unclear whether he would accept. There are also questions about how much she would be able to compromise once in No. 10. The right of the party took her to the final two and will want results, so she doesn’t have much room for manoeuvre when it comes to her policy plans.

Whoever comes out on top, Tory MPs are increasingly worried that the next chapter will be just as bruising as everything that has led up to it.

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