Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak court Tory members’ votes in party heartlands
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have been courting votes in the Tory heartlands with party members saying whoever wins will be facing the “most difficult start… since the Second World War”.
Both candidates came to picturesque Ludlow on Wednesday, drawing about 350 Conservative members at the racecourse pavilion, in the shadow of Clee Hill.
The county of Shropshire is representative of the typical Tory shire whose members both candidates must woo if they are to win the leadership ballot.
The Tories held every constituency in the county until the loss of North Shropshire – a seat they had held since 1904 – to the Liberal Democrats in a 2021 by-election.
Mr Sunak spoke first, joking that people often said to him: “Wow, you’re even shorter in real life.”
In a speech and Q&A taking in broad topics, he pledged to cut taxes, boost growth and help families hit by the cost of living.
Introducing Mr Sunak – and later Ms Truss – Ludlow MP Philip Dunne revealed an unofficial poll he had carried out on the race for Number 10 had 34% backing Mr Sunak, 33% supporting Ms Truss and 33% undecided.
Ms Truss promised to hike defence spending, boost pupils’ school attainment, “slim down” quangos and “challenge Treasury orthodoxy” with more investment outside big cities.
Describing herself as a “straight-talking Yorkshire woman”, she also said “I know a woman is a woman”, raising a chuckle from her audience.
She replied: “People are laughing. There’s people in Whitehall who don’t believe that.”
Referring to rail strikes, Ms Truss said she was “on the side of the 95% who get the train to work – not the train drivers, who are paid more than £50,000 per year”.
She vowed to “reverse the rise in national insurance” while protecting the beneficial effect the rise had for some of the lowest paid workers.
Asked about pensions payments, she replied: “I assure you, I am absolutely committed to the triple lock (on pensions).”
After the speeches, with Tory members emerging into the Shropshire sunshine, one woman said: “She (Ms Truss) was very good today, but she made an awful lot of promises.”
A male party member said: “I am pleased I came – I was one of the floating voters.
“I am probably going to go for Mr Sunak because, in the end, the economy is the most important thing and I trust him on that.”
Another said: “I think they were both very good – I hope that one of them becomes prime minister, and that the other is in the cabinet.”
Asked which way he would vote, he replied with a smile: “I can’t tell you that.”
Another member, walking back to his car, turned and replied: “Not at the minute. Still undecided.”
Barbara Harris, 83, and a retired nurse and hospital theatre assistant, said: “A lot of it (the debates) has been horrendous, and some of it in the press has been awful.
“But that has helped because I think they (the candidates) realised how competitive it was getting and have moved back a bit from that.
“I felt it was very good today, to see them in person.
“I came with the intent, I think, to vote for Liz Truss.
“I felt Rishi is trying to impress too much. She is trying to impress… but in a different way.”
The lifelong Conservative, formerly from Bolton, Lancashire, said these were “hard times” for her grandchildren, with Covid-19, a likely recession, war in Europe, inflation hitting record highs and the cost of living increasing.
Mrs Harris said: “I think HS2 should be abandoned… the cost is high and inflation is at record levels, so it’s getting more expensive.
“I’m on the fence, but leaning over towards Liz Truss.”
Michael Evans, a Shropshire Tory party member of 20 years, said: “I thought Rishi was very focused, and on top of his brief.
“I think he understands the economic problems better than Liz, and so I think he will make a better prime minister.
“He definitely performed better, he was more focused and precise. Her answers were more aspirational.
“I do think that whoever takes over as prime minister is going to have the most difficult start, probably since the (Second World) War.
“And the problems are going to take longer than two years to get over.”