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Rishi Sunak may have won the leadership ballot among Tory MPs but he will now face a different audience, who have so far seemed largely immune to his charms – 160,000-odd grassroots Conservative members.
Sunak has consistently struggled in polling among party activists. The latest ConservativeHome survey last weekend showed him losing a head-to-head battle with Truss by 42% to her 49%. YouGov polling of Conservative members showed him trailing the foreign secretary by an even wider margin, 54% to 35%.
Tim Bale, who co-authored a recent book, Footsoldiers, about political parties’ members, said Sunak’s shaky hold on the membership probably stemmed from political missteps earlier this year.
“I think you have to go back beyond his resignation from the government and look at, for example, the really poor reaction to his spring statement, which went down like a cup of cold sick with Conservative members as well as MPs,” Bale said.
“The non-dom issue really hurt him as well,” he added. Sunak’s wife agreed to pay UK tax on her considerable worldwide earnings after news reports pointed to her non-dom status.
Another potential black mark for Sunak in the eyes of the Conservative party in the country may be his role in defenestrating Boris Johnson.
No 10 have made little secret of the fact that the prime minister blames his former chancellor for plotting against him – though Sunak was not even the first cabinet minister to resign, trailing Sajid Javid by a few minutes.
At his campaign launch, Sunak paid tribute to Johnson, presumably to placate those MPs and party members cross about the prime minister’s demise. The outgoing PM may be “flawed”, Sunak said, but he has a “good heart”.
Back in April, one-third of the ConservativeHome panel of party members thought Johnson should resign, while more than half thought he should not.
Truss’s loyalty to Johnson to the end – sitting alongside him at his final PMQs on Wednesday – may score her some points with members.
Her policy stance of immediate tax cuts may be less of a clincher, despite the stereotype of Conservative members as rightwing ideologues.
A recent paper for the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe, co-authored by Bale, suggested that on economic policy at least, Tory members are actually considerably less rightwing than the party’s MPs. “Rather than being closer to the average voter, Conservative MPs sit to the right of party members, councillors and activists,” the research said.
Meanwhile, qualitative polling of party members by YouGov published this week suggested policies are less important to them in picking a leader than personal qualities.
When asked to specify in their own words “what are you looking for in the new leader of the Conservative party?” more than half of those surveyed (52%) named personal attributes, such as honesty, intellectual strength or leadership skills, while 32% chose qualities that YouGov categorised as “conventional Conservatism,” such as supporting lower tax and spending, or patriotism.
“One party member told us they were looking for ‘someone with honesty and integrity, who is willing to tell the truth without fear of the consequences. Someone who is not in it for personal gain and sees it as a duty to serve. Someone who is committed to all parts of the country but willing to be realistic about what government can actually do and what we should do personally,’” wrote Patrick English, YouGov’s associate director. “Meanwhile, another kept it short and sweet, telling us they wanted ‘honesty. Integrity. Trustworthiness. Leadership.’”
With years of cabinet experience at the highest levels, it is hard to imagine that party members do not already have a firm view about the personal qualities of Sunak and Truss. But the polling suggests that to take the lead the former chancellor will need to stress his leadership qualities, as well as just scrapping over policy, which has formed the centrepiece of his campaign so far.
Despite many members’ misgivings, Bale believes Sunak may ultimately win through if he can convince enough of them that he is a better bet for winning the next general election.
Both remaining candidates were already hammering home the line that they could beat Keir Starmer shortly after Wednesday’s result confirmed their places in the final two – though Labour says it is not concerned about either of them.
“If you look at the surveys of where their priorities are, winning the next election is top. I suspect over the course of the next month the members will come to the view that Sunak has a better chance of doing that than Liz Truss, and maybe will act accordingly,” said Bale.
Tory MPs’ favourite Rishi Sunak faces challenge to win over party members
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