Liz Truss has said she is “fighting for every vote” in the race for No 10, even as her lead over rival Rishi Sunak was further boosted by the endorsement of another party heavyweight.
The Foreign Secretary trumpeted her “support from right across all parts of the Conservative Party” after gaining Tory centrist Tom Tugendhat’s backing in the contest.
Mr Sunak faces an uphill battle as he seeks to win over Conservative members, who appear more likely to vote for Ms Truss as the next party leader and prime minister when ballots start landing on their doorstep next week, according to opinion polls.
Both contenders continued flitting across the country on Saturday to meet voters in a crunch weekend for their campaigns.
During a campaign stop in Bromley, Ms Truss was asked whether her advantage over Mr Sunak in member surveys meant the contest is hers to lose.
She told reporters: “This is a very, very close race, and I am fighting for every vote.”
She said she was “absolutely delighted” about Mr Tugendhat’s endorsement, but described it as “extremely premature” to say whether he would be appointed her Foreign Secretary, a job Mr Tugendhat indicated he hoped to get while insisting he had been “promised nothing”.
Ms Truss said: “He is a very, very talented person and I’m very grateful to have the support from right across all parts of the Conservative Party because we need to reunite after this leadership election.”
The Foreign Secretary also discussed her plans to make it easier for renters to get on the housing ladder in an overhaul of mortgage rules.
“I think the idea that somebody can sit in Whitehall and decide exactly which houses go where in the country is completely wrong,” she said.
“I also want to make it easier for people who have rented to get on the housing ladder, to show all of the money that they’ve paid into the rent counts towards their ability to get a mortgage.”
Mr Tugendhat, who joined Ms Truss at the campaign event at Biggin Hill Airport, rejected the idea that Mr Sunak should drop out of the race.
“No, he shouldn’t stand down,” said Mr Tugendhat, who was himself recently eliminated from the contest.
“He should be competing and challenging to win the votes and support of members across the United Kingdom and I’m sure he will.”
Mr Sunak tweeted photos of himself with supporters on the campaign trail in the south of England with the caption: “Busy Saturday meeting hundreds of members. Wouldn’t have it any other way!”
The former chancellor was due to attack “woke nonsense” in a speech apparently designed to enthuse Tory grassroots with hardened rhetoric on so-called culture war issues.
He was expected to tell supporters in West Sussex that he would prevent “left-wing agitators” from taking “a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values”.
Both candidates to succeed Boris Johnson pledged to “champion the rural way of life” in pitches to rural communities.
Writing for the Countryside Alliance’s magazine, Ms Truss vowed to “place planning powers in the hands of local people” and boost Britain’s domestic food production by “removing red tape” in the inspection regime for producers.
Mr Sunak, in a separate piece for the campaigning organisation’s magazine, said his “mission has always been to do things ‘for’ rural communities, not ‘to’ them”, without setting out specific policies to help them.
Mr Sunak was on the defensive over tax again in an interview with Andrew Neil on Friday, rejecting accusations that his policies would result in recession and warning that Ms Truss’s plans for sweeping tax cuts would pour “fuel on the fire” of inflation.
The veteran political journalist challenged Mr Sunak over his plans to tighten fiscal policy at a time when “the global economy grinds to a halt, as monetary policy has been tightening”, suggesting he would “ensure a recession”.
Mr Sunak said: “I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do to not put fuel on the fire of the inflation problem that we already have.
“What we should do is focus on long-term growth because that’s what we need, sustainable growth, not a sugar rush boom that will make us feel better for months, but then it runs out of control, let inflation get set into the system, let the Bank of England have to react with even higher interest rates.”
Mr Sunak was grilled by Mr Neil on the economy, immigration and his wife’s tax status for nearly half an hour in the Channel 4 interview, something Ms Truss has so far declined to take part in.
With Ms Truss’s offer of more than £30 billion of unfunded tax cuts seeing her consistently ahead in member surveys, Mr Sunak performed a U-turn this week by promising to temporarily slash VAT on energy bills.
However, the policy reversal appears to have failed to shore up support among Tory voters, of whom 43% believe Ms Truss would be a better prime minister, compared with 32% for Mr Sunak, according to a BMG Research poll for the i newspaper.
Mr Sunak’s fiscal policy came under fire from Mr Tugendhat, who wrote in The Times that it is “not right” that the tax burden should be rising when people are heading into winter with “dread”.
The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee was the latest senior Tory to declare his backing of Ms Truss following Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s earlier endorsement, and it is significant due to his popularity among party members and leading status among centrist Conservative MPs.