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Rishi Sunak is already running out of time to save his campaign

The former chancellor has little time to overturn Liz Truss’s 24-point lead before Tory members begin voting next week.

By Freddie Hayward

How has the contest to be the next prime minister changed? Most obviously, there’s a new “selectorate”. Tory MPs whittled down the contestants to two last week, and now it’s the turn of around 180,000 Conservative Party members to choose our next PM by 2 September.

That means the nature of the contest will change too. The race thus far has been focused on tax cuts. In part, this was because reducing the tax bill is a primary concern of many Tory MPs. The expedited contest meant the candidates had to shout to gain their colleagues’ votes. (Truss’s shaky position outside the top two for all but the last MPs’ ballot will only have encouraged her to be more zealous in her promised reductions.)

Proposals to cut taxes in the face of the cost-of-living crisis will remain centre-stage, partly because the economy is at the top of voters’ concerns. But with a month of hustings and media scrutiny to enjoy/endure (delete according to your appetite for odes to Margaret Thatcher), other issues will come to the fore. 

[See also: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak begin their summer of hustings]

One of those issues will be the candidates’ attitude to the rise of China. Sunak has wisely chosen to pre-empt the criticism that as chancellor he was soft on China. Today he’s said China is the UK’s “number one threat” and calls for a ban on all 30 Confucius Institutes – schools that promote Chinese language and culture – in the UK. Truss’s allies have accused Sunak of prioritising trade with China while claiming Truss has taken a hard-line position as Foreign Secretary. That is now likely to become a key battleground.

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Another change has been the front-runner. Last week, Truss was uncertain whether she’d even make it to the final two with Sunak. Now Sunak’s the underdog. At the moment, party members favour Truss. The latest polling from YouGov puts Truss on 62 per cent and Sunak on 38 per cent (once people who are unsure or won’t vote are excluded). That’s a 24-point lead for the Foreign Secretary. Truss is also ahead on key metrics such as trust and who would make a good leader. That strong lead makes tonight and tomorrow’s TV debates crucial for Sunak. Members will receive their ballots from next week and can return their votes as soon as they like. Sunak does not have long.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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