Allies of Rishi Sunak have insisted “there’s everything to play for” in the race for No 10, dismissing claims that he is lagging far behind rival Liz Truss.
The Tory leadership hopefuls have unveiled a ream of new policies on a crunch weekend to win over party members before ballots start landing on their doorsteps this week.
Both camps have stressed that the contest is not yet determined despite surveys of the voting Tory grassroots consistently putting Ms Truss ahead with a double-digit lead.
But there have been suggestions that polling elderly members is problematic, and Welsh Secretary Sir Robert Buckland, a supporter of Mr Sunak, said anyone predicting the outcome “doesn’t know the membership of the party”.
“I genuinely think there are a lot of members out there who have not made up their minds,” he told BBC Radio Wales.
“I do think that the candidates are right when they say that this contest is not determined yet and it’s all to play for”.
Business minister Greg Hands, another backer of the former chancellor, seized on a survey of Tory councillors which saw the two contenders in a near tie.
Ms Truss was on 31% and Mr Sunak on 29% among 511 local Conservative politicians polled by Savanta ComRes.
Mr Hands told Sky News: “Rishi Sunak is also popular with party members. According to today’s poll of conservative councillors, which is quite a good proxy for the party membership overall, it’s absolutely neck-and-neck between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.
Anyone thinking that this will be a coronation should think again. New @SavantaComRes poll of Tory councillors for The Sunday @Telegraph poll of conservative councillors. #Ready4Rishi @RishiSunak – 29%@trussliz – 31%Undecided – 32%Won’t Vote/Say – 8%
— Mel Stride (@MelJStride) July 31, 2022
“So we think that there’s everything to play for, we think Rishi is in a good position.”
Tory Treasury Committee chair Mel Stride tweeted the poll results, writing: “Anyone thinking that this will be a coronation should think again”.
But Mr Sunak, who admitted to The Sunday Telegraph he is “playing catch-up” to Ms Truss, was dealt a blow when former Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis became the latest senior Tory to throw his weight behind Ms Truss.
Mr Lewis accused the former chancellor of blocking efforts to overcome the Brexit impasse with the European Union by overriding parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Liz Truss gained the backing of senior Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat (Henry Nicholls/PA)
The ex-Cabinet Minister told Sky News: “One of the reasons I’m supporting Liz is because she has been able to get this work done on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Rishi hasn’t been in the same place.”
Mr Lewis’s endorsement of the Foreign Secretary followed that of party heavyweights Tom Tugendhat and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, giving her campaign further momentum.
Criticism of Mr Sunak 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 him of a “tendency to be driven by Treasury orthodoxy” and of giving an “impressive and polished technical performance” but lacking “empathy, foresight and vision”.
Mr Sunak also faced attacks from Nadine Dorries, who accused him of plotting a “coup” against Boris Johnson that was “Tudoresque in its degree of brutality” by resigning as chancellor.
But the Culture Secretary, who also retweeted a doctored image of Mr Sunak stabbing the Prime Minister in the back, faced a backlash from Tory ministers who described her interventions on Ms Truss’s behalf as “appalling” and “dangerous”.
More than 15 million appointments at GP surgeries are wasted each year due to patients failing to show up.
I would introduce a temporary £10 charge for patients who fail to attend an NHS appointment without providing notice.
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) July 31, 2022
In a policy blitz designed to revive his flagging bid to become prime minister, Mr Sunak announced plans to introduce a £10 fine for patients who miss GP and hospital appointments to help reduce waiting lists.
Mr Hands explained that the fine, levied on the second offence, would be “at the discretion of the GP”.
As prime minister, Mr Sunak would also aim to put diagnostic hubs in empty high street shops, roll out more specialist surgical hubs and appoint a new “backlogs taskforce”.
The former chancellor also pledged 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.
The 42-year-old earlier attacked “woke nonsense” and “left-wing agitators” in an apparent attempt to outdo Ms Truss on so-called culture war issues that appeal to the right of the party.
I am backing @trussliz to be the next leader of our Party and our country’s next Prime Minister 🇬🇧. Here is why ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/jxrdRW3pJE
— Brandon Lewis (@BrandonLewis) July 31, 2022
Ms Truss’s latest policy announcements included 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.
She did not explain how this would work in practice, with questions arising over whether it would mean pushing A-levels earlier or cramming the entire applications process into the few weeks between results and the start of university terms.
Speaking to the Sunday Times, the 47-year-old, Oxford-educated, leadership contender said: “There’s a lot of evidence that women are less likely to ask for a promotion and actually one of the best ways of making the system fairer is to identify the people that are talented and ask them if they want that opportunity.”
Asked whether her left-leaning parents would vote for her at a general election, she told the paper: “I think my mum will, I’m not sure about my dad.”
The Foreign Secretary on Saturday insisted it was a “very, very close race”, while trumpeting her “support from right across all parts of the Conservative Party” after gaining Tory centrist Mr Tugendhat’s backing.
Although many Conservative members are expected to vote early, they have until the beginning of September to cast their ballot, with the winner announced on September 5.
The two candidates will continue to flit across the country over the coming weeks to try to shore up their support and take part in hustings.