British Conservative frontrunner Liz Truss won another heavyweight endorsement Monday as party members began a month of voting to decide the next occupant of 10 Downing Street.
Truss’s lagging rival Rishi Sunak vied to make up lost ground with a plan for future tax cuts — and potentially to host a future women’s football World Cup in Britain after England’s “Lionesses” won the European championship.
Truss attended Sunday’s final against Germany, and the first victory by any England football team in a major tournament since 1966 wiped the prime ministerial race off newspaper front pages.
The Tory contenders were going head to head later Monday in a members’ hustings, in the southwestern city of Exeter — the second of 12 such events before the winner is announced on September 5.
Sunak, a polished debater, needs to recapture momentum after Truss steamed into a strong polling lead on a platform of immediate tax cuts to address Britain’s worst cost-of-living crisis in generations.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi joined other luminaries of Boris Johnson’s cabinet in backing the foreign secretary against Sunak, his predecessor in the Treasury.
“Liz understands that the status quo isn’t an option in times of crisis,” Zahawi wrote in The Telegraph, attacking Sunak’s plan to prioritise fighting inflation now, before cutting taxes later.
“We need a ‘booster’ attitude to the economy, not a ‘doomster’ one, in order to address cost-of-living woes and the challenges on the world stage,” the new chancellor said.
Sunak’s resignation from the scandal-tainted Johnson’s cabinet helped spark a ministerial exodus that forced the prime minister out last month.
As they began receiving postal and online ballot forms, a large minority of the roughly 200,000 Tory members is said by pollsters to nurse a grievance against Sunak — one shared by Johnson.
The prime minister is not formally taking sides, but has told aides that he intends to give his successor some words of advice, “whoever she may be”, The Sunday Times reported.
– ‘Distasteful, even dangerous’ –
Despite her endorsements from the likes of Zahawi, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, former Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Tory centrist Tom Tugendhat, Truss has warned against complacency.
Heading into the Exeter hustings, the foreign secretary has markedly improved her sometimes robotic public delivery — seen most notoriously in a 2014 speech when she was environment secretary.
Returning to her former field, the Remainer-turned-Brexit zealot promised to “unleash” farmers from European Union regulations to improve the UK’s food security.
Truss also vowed to tackle labour shortages in agriculture, partly caused by post-Brexit restrictions on immigration which have forced UK farmers to leave fruit rotting in fields and to slaughter healthy pigs.
Both the contenders have stressed the need for unity once the election is out of the way, aware that the opposition Labour party is riding high in the polls amid the economic crisis and political tumult of Johnson.
But their supporters have not been holding back, especially combative Truss ally Nadine Dorries.
The culture secretary retweeted an image portraying Johnson as Julius Caesar, being stabbed in the back by Sunak.
Last year, Conservative MP David Amess was stabbed to death by an Islamic State group follower.
In view of that, Dorries’ retweet was “distasteful and even verging on dangerous”, Sunak supporter Greg Hands, a government minister, told Sky News.
Truss’s campaign manager, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey, distanced the campaign from Dorries.
“I’ve made her aware that many colleagues were upset by it,” Coffey told Times Radio.
Sunak meanwhile received his own fulsome endorsement from former Conservative leader William Hague, his predecessor as MP in their northern English constituency.
“I have campaigned with literally thousands of candidates. I have mentored dozens,” Hague said in a video message.
“It was soon apparent that this one was the most assiduous and effective I had ever known,” he said, calling Sunak “highly disciplined” and “rational”.