Tory leadership latest: Tax slip-ups set to sink Rishi Sunak

For a man whose campaign was built on the inevitability of victory, Rishi Sunak could hardly be further from his goal. Three weeks into the British Conservative leadership race, polling suggests his opponent Liz Truss is nearly out of sight.

is team unquestionably overestimated his popularity with party members and underestimated Ms Truss.

The former chancellor could yet turn the tables, though even his supporters think it unlikely, barring a misstep by the foreign secretary. Seasoned political campaigners say there are many reasons why the Sunak campaign has been a flop – and were obvious from the start.

Some believe his campaign was always going to be dead on arrival thanks to his recent track record in government and his back-stabbing of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Others think he could have been ahead by now if he had “got his messaging right”.

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All agree his about-turn on VAT cuts this week was a sign of panic, and might have snuffed out the sputtering candle of his leadership bid.

“Quite simply, he is fighting the wrong election,” said one veteran of multiple Tory leadership campaigns. “You only ever deal with the electorate that is in front of you, not the next one. They are running the campaign as if they are fighting a general election, but they have to win this one first.”

Even the fact Mr Sunak chose not to wear a tie for TV debates has been seen as a sign that he was trying to appeal to the general public, rather than Tory members, who prefer their leaders more buttoned-up.

Accusations that Team Sunak does not understand the Tory membership crop up over and over again among MPs and strategists. Some blame Liam Booth-Smith, his former chief of staff at the Treasury and keystone of his campaign team, for failing to make sure his boss is fully connected with members’ views. Others blame his campaign manager Mel Stride MP. Many blame Mr Sunak himself.

“He has a very safe seat in Yorkshire where he can have barbecues for friendly Tory types in the garden of his mansion,” said one MP. “He hasn’t spent enough time going up and down the country finding out what members really think.”

Another catastrophic miscalculation has been the backlash against him for his pivotal role in bringing down Mr Johnson.

“Rishi and his team seemed to think he would be hailed a hero for resigning and getting rid of Boris,” said another Tory MP. “They thought Liz Truss would be tainted by standing by Boris. But the membership hates back-stabbers, as Michael Gove found out. Truss made the right decision to stay on, because a lot of the members still prefer Boris to either of them.”

Whether Mr Sunak could have done any better is open to debate. Those who have flocked to Ms Truss’s side believe his campaign was doomed because of his high-tax policies as chancellor, but there are impartial observers who believe he could have been in pole position now.

“He had the best-prepared campaign and his team have been tooling up for months,” said one strategist. “They had a big head start, but if you have the wrong message it doesn’t matter how slick your campaign might be.

“Their message was: you might not love my economics but it’s successful so stick with me and we will be OK.

“Instead, they should have been selling the fact he has promised tax cuts before the next election, that he is the one who spent £37bn (€44bn) on handouts to help with energy bills, and that there would be more to come.”

For now, Mr Sunak needs to hope he can keep the gap small enough that he can take advantage if Ms Truss falters. “This is probably the first time in his life he has had to confront the possibility of failure,” said one former colleague. “It will take him a long time to get over it if he loses.” (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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