Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are poised to go head to head in a hustings with Tory members, whom they are seeking to woo with a policy bonanza as they head into a crucial week in the race for No 10.
With postal ballots beginning to drop on members’ doorsteps on Monday, Mr Sunak is under pressure to overhaul his campaign as polling among the group suggests he is lagging behind his rival.
Ms Truss’s campaign gained further momentum with the endorsement of Nadhim Zahawi, the latest party heavyweight to get behind the frontrunner.
The Chancellor praised Ms Truss’s “booster” economic approach while implying that his “doomster” predecessor in the Treasury subscribed to the “status quo” and a “stale economic orthodoxy”.
Ms Truss and Mr Sunak take their campaigns to Exeter on Monday evening as they continue to seek support from members in visits around the country.
In a last-ditch effort to win over the party faithful before they start voting, Mr Sunak attempted to shake off his image as the tax-hiking former chancellor by promising the “biggest income tax cut since Margaret Thatcher’s government”.
He vowed to slash the basic rate from 20% to 16% within seven years if he becomes prime minister, in a move immediately branded as a “flip-flop” by allies of Ms Truss after weeks of labelling her plans for sweeping tax cuts as “comforting fairy tales”.
Mr Sunak’s plan builds on his previously announced 1p cut to income tax in April 2024, with the additional 3p to be slashed dependent on economic growth to fund it.
Mr Sunak called his policy “radical” yet “realistic” and listed principles he would never compromise on, in a thinly veiled swipe at Ms Truss.
“Firstly I will never get taxes down in a way that just puts inflation up. Secondly I will never make promises I can’t pay for. And thirdly I will always be honest about the challenges we face.
“Because winning this leadership contest without levelling with people about what lies ahead would not only be dishonest, it would be an act of self-sabotage that condemns our party to defeat at the next general election and consigns us to a long period in opposition”.
But critics noted that the time frame for the tax reduction – with the deadline possibly as late as December 2029 – means it does not help families amid the current cost-of-living crisis.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke, who is backing Ms Truss, said: “Liz will cut taxes in seven weeks, not seven years.”
A Truss campaign source added: “It’s only a shame he didn’t do this as Chancellor when he repeatedly raised taxes.
“He has also made it conditional on getting growth first – knowing full well that his corporation tax rises are contractionary.
“The public and Conservative Party members can see through these flip flops and U-turns.”
In declaring his support for Ms Truss, Mr Zahawi wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “Liz understands that the status quo isn’t an option in times of crisis…
“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.
“Liz will overturn the stale economic orthodoxy and run our economy in a Conservative way.”
The endorsement by Mr Zahawi, a former leadership rival who had earlier indicated he would not publicly back a contender, followed that of former Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and senior Tory Tom Tugendhat.
Mr Sunak’s bid for the premiership was given a boost by the endorsement of Damian Green, the chair of the One Nation group of Conservative MPs, who said he trusted the former chancellor to “unify the party” and “conjure up a solution” to crises.
Tax has dominated the bitter race for No 10, with Mr Sunak advocating prudence with the nation’s finances, while Ms Truss is pledging large tax cuts of more than £30 billion, paid in part by more borrowing.
Mr Sunak previously faced accusations of a U-turn when he last week vowed to temporarily slash VAT on energy bills.
The move seemingly failed to give him any significant boost in surveys of Tory grassroots since, with the ex-chancellor admitting to The Sunday Telegraph he was “playing catch-up” to his rival.
Ms Truss’s latest policy announcement focused on farming, which she vowed to “unleash” from EU regulations in order to improve the nation’s food security.
The Foreign Secretary also promised to tackle the labour shortages, partly caused by post-Brexit freedom of movement restrictions, which have often forced farmers to leave fruit rotting in the fields and cull healthy pigs.
Ms Truss, a former environment secretary who is due to meet farmers on a campaign stop in the south-west of England, said: “The pandemic and cost-of-living crisis have shown it is more vital than ever for us to ensure we have a high-quality and affordable supply of British food…
“I will cut the red tape that is holding (farmers) back and hitting them in their pocket”.
After the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 victory on Sunday night, Mr Sunak promised to try to bring a future women’s World Cup to the UK as he hailed England’s women’s football team as “transformational” for sport.
His other announcements over the weekend included plans to introduce a £10 fine for patients who miss GP and hospital appointments, to slash the number of shuttered shops on Britain’s high streets, as well as a vow to tackle “woke nonsense”.
Ms Truss also unveiled 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.
Both candidates will face a grilling in the second of 12 official hustings over the summer in Exeter at 7pm.
Although Conservative members have the chance to vote as early as this week, they have until the beginning of September to cast their ballot, with the winner announced on September 5.