As party members decide, Truss has upper hand in contest to be Britain's new PM

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·5-min read
Conservative Party leadership campaign event in Leeds
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By Elizabeth Piper, Andrew MacAskill and Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) - Few members of the governing Conservative Party supported foreign secretary Liz Truss when the leadership contest began this month, but now there's a sense of inevitability that she will become Britain's next prime minister.

"It's hers to lose" is the common refrain from party members, who will cast their votes in coming weeks to appoint the new Conservative leader and successor to Boris Johnson.

But for many members, the driving force behind their support for Truss is less about her and more about her rival, former finance minister Rishi Sunak, who, several said, cannot be handed the keys to Number 10 Downing Street after "knifing" Johnson.

After Johnson was forced to announce his resignation on July 7 amid waves of scandal, party lawmakers whittled the contest down from 11 hopefuls to Truss and Sunak -- and now it's over to the membership to decide, with the result to be announced on Sept. 5.

With Britain facing possible recession, spiralling inflation and a summer of strike action, most in the party want their next leader to bring stability, tired of the chaos wrought by the Johnson administration and a bitter leadership contest.

Opinion polls among members put Truss, 47, well ahead of Sunak, 42. Truss last week held a 24-point lead over Sunak according to YouGov, even though she had trailed Sunak among lawmakers' votes. But having a less than enthusiastic support base in the party might make her vulnerable if she fails to steady the ship quickly.

"Obviously I want Liz Truss if it's going to be one of the two," said Paul Donaghy, a Conservative councillor for the Washington South ward in Sunderland, a northern English city which became synonymous with Brexit when it was the first region to fall to the "leave" side in results from the 2016 referendum on European Union membership.

"She was one of the only ones who didn't stick the knife into Boris and I think that rings true for a lot of people," said Donaghy, who initially backed another candidate.

Donaghy's opinion chimes with many party members, some of whom joined the party because of Johnson and are sceptical of Sunak, whose resignation as chancellor on July 5 helped trigger the wider rebellion against the prime minister by Conservative lawmakers.

"So I think it is an anti-Rishi vote which is in a sense a shame," said Antony Mullen, a Conservative councillor for the Barnes Ward in Sunderland.

"I think it's sad that it's inevitable that it will be her because he's perceived as having wielded the knife because I think he was right to and should've done so earlier."

Truss and Sunak have traded barbs in particular over the timing of any tax cuts, with Sunak describing Truss's plans for immediate reductions as "comforting fairy tales", although he did change tack this week by offering relief on rising energy bills.

Truss in turn has called Sunak, a long-term party member and former Goldman Sachs banker, a "socialist" whose plans would tip Britain into recession.

WHO ARE THE CONSERVATIVES?

Amid the third Conservative Party leadership race in six years, it is not clear how many people are party members, but in 2021 there were around 200,000 and the number might have fallen since, with local councillors saying many left over so-called partygate - events held in Johnson's Downing Street office that broke COVID-19 rules.

According to 2020 research by Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University Party Members Project, party membership tends to be older, male, southern English and Brexit supporting, meaning a leadership election can skew more towards a right-wing agenda than the rest of the country.

Anecdotally, more younger adults, often men, from northern England have been joining.

The system to elect a new leader has been criticised by the opposition Labour Party, which argues that the electorate should decide the prime minister, and also by some Conservative members, who feel they should be offered a greater choice.

"I won't be voting for any of them," said John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy.

"The members elected the leader and they should have decided whether he was dismissed. It shouldn't have been left to the MPs and the members haven't been given a choice of candidates."

Sean Donovan-Smith, chairman of the South West Surrey Conservative Association, agreed, saying: "I think there's a lot of dissatisfaction at the moment with the final two."

Many members will hope the hustings up and down the country can help them make up their minds.

Sunak's latest promise of temporarily scrapping taxes on household energy bills did little to woo members in Sunderland, with councillors saying any help should be better targeted to lower income households.

Some are being won over by Truss, who would be the country's third woman prime minister after Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. She has served in cabinet for most of the last eight years in a variety of roles and they say she at least has the experience and should be able to take the tough decisions to steer Britain's economy through difficult times.

"Conservative ladies do make good leaders, strong leaders, tough leaders and sensible leaders," said Pam Mann, a councillor for St Anne's ward in Sunderland.

"That is what we need, we need that now, we need stability, we need control and we need a solid direction and bright ideas."

(Writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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