Rishi Sunak’s team is being urged to revise its “general election-style” campaign in favor of a grassroots effort aimed directly at Tory members in a last-ditch bid to beat Liz Truss for the Tory leadership.
While some of the former Chancellor’s supporters are in despair over the apparent grip Truss has taken on the contest to replace Boris Johnson, allies have warned there is too much focus on polished social media content, television appearances and visits from swing voters who failed to win over conservative members.
Many Tory MPs believe there is only a brief window left to change the race, with ballots handed out to members of . Some major backers want Sunak and a vast network of supporting MPs to spend their time solely contacting local members directly via phone banks and online group calls to make his point.
Truss tried to play down suggestions that she was on course for a clear victory on Saturday, saying the race to become prime minister “is not over”. Despite endorsements from prominent Tories last week, she said it “would be extremely premature” to start thinking about who would have a place in her cabinet. She added: “It’s a very, very close race, and I’m fighting for every vote.”
Several MPs said it had been relatively easy to persuade many local members to support Sunak rather than Truss once they had been contacted, arguing that support for the Foreign Secretary was often weak. However, they said the “air warfare” aspects of Sunak’s campaign were simply not reaching the membership, which numbered around 160,000.
“They’re doing it like an election campaign,” said a Sunak supporter. ” It is very simple. There are 160,000 Conservative members scattered across the country. We know who they are. We know where they are. All we have to do is talk to them. The social media campaign, the TV appearances – most of them don’t make a difference to the members.
“The vote is very soft, you don’t have to do much to move it. We make it way too complicated. There are some brilliant people in charge, but I’m just afraid we’re running the wrong campaign.
Another MP said: ‘The stuff they’re having their guys produce is social media stuff for a general election. These are party members. It should just be about getting Rishi and his core supporters to as many members as possible. They try to get MPs out for them, but it mostly produces social media graphics.
A third ally said: “I think it looks quite difficult for him, but I can’t give up hope just yet. There are many MPs who talk to their associations. We still have time. It would be absurd to just go through the motions for the next four weeks.
Campaign sources said last night that Sunak was already heavily engaged in direct discussions with members, including through online calls and local events. They said regional campaign coordinators had worked with supportive MPs from the start to reach out to members. He was also pictured meeting groups of members yesterday.
“The more people see Rishi, the more they like him, so our strategy is to put him in front of as many members as possible,” a campaign source said. “We are undeniably the underdogs, but last time I checked the Brits as the brave underdog. The members don’t like being told what to think by the media, so Team Truss shouldn’t be counting their chickens yet.
His team called yesterday a ‘super Saturday’, targeting local Conservative associations in key southern constituencies with large memberships. These are also areas where members are more likely to have been upset with the chaotic nature of Johnson’s premiership.
There are still concerns about how the party will reunite after a bitter campaign. Amanda Milling, Foreign Secretary and former party chair, is urging candidates to sign a “clean campaign” pledge to limit the damage. “This leadership race has been the most toxic I have ever seen,” she said.
“For the rest of the race, I call on teams to stop blue on blue and focus on a clean, fair and policy-driven campaign. If we don’t, we’re making it harder to bring the party and risk being excluded from power for a decade.
Tory member polls have suggested Truss has a healthy double-digit lead over Sunak, but the former chancellor’s cheerleaders say the battle is not over. “The feeling is that the vote for Truss is still low, so we shouldn’t assume anything from the members at this time,” an insider said.
In an earlier intervention, Sunak promised to tackle what he described as “woke nonsense”. While saying he had no interest in waging a “culture war”, he said he wanted to “end the brainwashing, the vandalism and the accusations”. This led to accusations that he was trying to outflank Truss on the right.
Calls for a campaign overhaul are a sign of frustration and anxiety among Sunak supporters. While Sunak trails Truss in the polls, a string of prominent Tories have swung behind the Foreign Secretary in recent days as she cemented her frontrunner status.
Tom Tugendhat, who had become the favored candidate for the leadership of the centrist one-nation wing of the Conservative Party, is the latest major figure to endorse Truss. He said his plan for immediate tax cuts was “based on true Conservative principles.”
His support follows endorsements from Jake Berry, the influential leader of the MPs’ Northern Research Group, and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, a favorite among Tory members.