Conservative leadership frontrunner Liz Truss will be “empty chaired” by farmers after she refused to turn up at a hustings event on rural issues organised by union leaders.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is furious at Truss’s decision to snub the invitation to address members on Friday, at event which will be attended by her Tory rival Rishi Sunak.
Speaking about plans to “empty chair” Truss, the NFU president Minette Batters said she had “offered to meet her anywhere” saying she had offered to ask questions virtually.
“It’s disappointing as it’s not just about farming – food is such a critical subject, water is so critical to everybody, especially at the moment,” Batters told The Guardian.
Describing the snub as “a shame”, the farming union leader added: “It doesn’t bode well. George Eustice has made his comments – you would think she would want to put her marker down.”
The Truss campaign said she “cannot turn up to everything”, but the Sunak campaign said he would attend on Friday. A spokesperson said he would “support farmers in all future UK trade deals, taking time to get the trade deals right, rather than rushing them through”.
Eustice revealed on Wednesday that he faced “challenges” and tensions” with Truss in getting her to recognise animal welfare in trade deals she struck as trade secretary.
The Sunak supporter made the remarks at an environment-focused leadership hustings hosted by the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) – which boasts more than 100 Tory MPs as part of its parliamentary caucus.
“It is fair to say there were some challenges that I had getting Liz Truss to recognise the importance of animal welfare in particular,” he said.
The minister added: “It’s not a secret really – but there was often quite a bit of tension between us trying to get animal welfare in particular recognised during those trade agreements.”
Farming groups have accused the government of undercutting British producers by doing deals with countries which allow lower welfare standards hoping to boost cheap exports to the UK.
A recent report by the ResPublica think tank warned that domestic farmers will be undercut if the “soft” approach of the Australia and New Zealand negotiations continues in talks with countries with “less qualms” about quality.
But Zac Goldsmith, a Truss supporter, told the online hustings: “I think Liz is sound on animal welfare. She’s committed to seeing through the kept animals bill.”
The Tory peer, a close ally of Boris Johnson, described how he was a “Liz sceptic” when she became foreign secretary, but said he believed she had been an “enthusiastic driver” of the environmental agenda.
The NFU president said this week that neither Tory had set out a sufficient plan to deal with the water crisis.
Ms Batters said it was “immoral and unethical” to allow water to be wasted, as fears grow could be ruined crops because of widespread droughts.
Both Tory candidates will go head-to-head at a live Tory hustings event in Manchester evening hosted by GB News.
Sunak has insisted that he “definitely” still has a shot at becoming the next PM despite the latest YouGov poll of Tory members putting Truss as the frontrunner by 66 per cent to 34 per cent.