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Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak speaks during a hustings event, part of the Conservative party leadership campaign, in Exeter, Britain, August 1 2022. Picture: REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS
Conservative leadership candidate Rishi Sunak speaks during a hustings event, part of the Conservative party leadership campaign, in Exeter, Britain, August 1 2022. Picture: REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS

London — Former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak said it was still “early days” in the contest to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a day after an opinion poll showed his rival, Liz Truss, had extended her lead in the race to be Britain’s next leader.

The governing Conservative Party is choosing a new leader after Johnson was forced to announce his resignation when ministers resigned en masse from his government citing a series of scandals and missteps over the past 12 months.

Sunak, whose resignation helped trigger Johnson’s downfall, and foreign secretary Truss are the two remaining candidates in the contest.

“It’s still early days and I’m looking forward to meeting many more of you in the coming weeks,” Sunak said in a tweet ahead of campaigning among members of the Conservative Party later on Wednesday.

The party’s members will vote by postal ballot or online over the next few weeks with a winner announced on September 5. Plans to allow voters to change their mind at the last minute were abandoned due to concerns about the security of the online voting system.

The winner of the party leadership contest will inherit a parliamentary majority and therefore become prime minister.

On Tuesday, an opinion poll showed Truss held a 34-point lead over Sunak among Conservative Party members, with 86% telling pollster YouGov they had decided how they would vote.

However, polling officials say there are doubts about the reliability of measuring the support among the roughly 200,000 Conservative party members. Far fewer polls are carried out on this group, who make up about 0.3% of the British population, than among the public before elections.

Truss suffered the first major misstep of her campaign on Tuesday when she was forced to backtrack on one of her most striking pledges a day after announcing it following a backlash from fellow Conservatives and opposition parties.

Truss had set out plans to save billions of pounds a year in government spending in a pledge opponents said would require cutting the pay of public sector workers, including nurses and teachers, outside the wealthy southeast of England.

Tax promises 

Sunak has struggled in the race, partly due to his role in Johnson’s resignation and over his record in the government.

As finance minister, Sunak implemented tax increases to pay for government support offered during the Covid-19 pandemic and to help Britons subsidise soaring energy bills. That has drawn criticism from many activists in the historically low-tax party.

Sunak has pledged to cut taxes over time to avoid stoking inflation, but Truss has said she would act immediately to lower the tax burden.

“Almost undoubtedly Mr Sunak’s problems are a combination of policy position and personality,” John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and one of Britain’s leading polling experts, told Times Radio.

“He tells us that he’s an instinctive tax cutter, but of course for good or ill as chancellor he has presided over an increase in taxation and spending, and that is something which causes angst within large sections of the Conservative Party.”

The delivery of ballot papers to Conservative members to vote have been delayed and plans to allow people to change their votes during the contest have been scrapped amid concerns hackers could change members’ ballots.

Under the initial rules of the race, party members would have been able to change their votes after submitting them if they decided to switch their support.

The Conservative Party said it had enhanced security around the ballot process after discussions with Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre.

Reuters

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