Tory leadership favourite Liz Truss downplays advantage over Rishi Sunak

Foreign Secretary gains backing of more senior Tories but says race is still 'very very close'

Liz Truss has consistently beaten Rishi Sunak in polls of Tory members asking who they want to be the next Tory leader. AP
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Liz Truss has played down claims she has a clear lead over rival Rishi Sunak in the Conservative leadership race, even as her campaign was further buoyed by endorsements of party heavyweights.

The Foreign Secretary insisted it was a "very, very close race," while trumpeting her "support from right across all parts of the Conservative Party" after gaining the backing of erstwhile leadership candidate Tom Tugendhat and Defence Minister Ben Wallace.

During a campaign stop in Bromley, the foreign secretary told reporters the race was a "very, very close race" and she was "fighting for every vote".

Her latest policy announcements include a six-point plan on education, under which she promised that pupils with top A' Level grades would get an automatic invitation to apply for Oxbridge and other prestigious universities.

Branding herself the "education prime minister", she vowed to replace failing academies with "a new wave of free schools" and improve maths and literacy standards.

Ms Truss also told The Telegraph there would be no second referendum on Scottish independence "on my watch," with her rejection appearing to go further than Boris Johnson's assertion that now was "not the time".

Mr Sunak has consistently trailed Ms Truss in polls of party members and faces an uphill battle to win them over before ballots start landing on their doorsteps next week.

His attempts to do so include plans to slash the number of shuttered shops on Britain's high streets, allow tougher punishment for graffiti and littering, and expand police powers to tackle anti-social behaviour.

Mr Sunak also told The Sunday Telegraph he would levy a £10 fine for patients who miss doctor and hospital appointments as part of a "transformative" overhaul of the National Health Service.

The former chancellor acknowledged he is "playing catch-up" to Ms Truss, in part blaming the fallout from the row over his wife Akshata Murty's tax status for his underdog status.

Earlier he sought to woo the notoriously illiberal Tory membership as he attacked "woke nonsense" in a speech in West Sussex, an apparent attempt to outdo Ms Truss on so-called culture war issues.

In hardened rhetoric, he pledged to prevent "left-wing agitators" from taking "a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values".

But the former chancellor was dealt a blow by accusations that he blocked efforts to overcome the Brexit impasse with the European Union.

The attack came from Ex-Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis, who declared his support for Ms Truss and said he trusts her more to achieve a swift return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland if she becomes prime minister.

Criticism from his fellow Tories also came from Lord Forsyth, who served as a minister under Margaret Thatcher and Sir John Major.

The former cabinet minister accused Mr Sunak of a "tendency to be driven by Treasury orthodoxy" and of giving an "impressive and polished technical performance" but lacking "empathy, foresight and vision".

"Conservatives believe in sound money, encouraging small business and lower, fairer, flatter, simpler taxes. I'm not sure Rishi entirely gets that," Lord Forsyth said.

Updated: July 31, 2022, 11:18 AM