Rishi Sunak will on Tuesday attempt to fend off fierce attacks from his rivals for the Conservative leadership, insisting at an official campaign launch that he would cut taxes only when he has “gripped inflation”.
The former chancellor will repeat his commitment to fiscal discipline, warning his leadership rivals, some of whom want immediate big tax cuts, that voters deserved “honesty and responsibility”.
He will say: “I have a plan to steer our country through these headwinds. Once we have gripped inflation, I will get the tax burden down. It is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.”
Under rules agreed by the Tory backbench 1922 committee on Monday evening, 20 nominations are needed for a candidate to join the first ballot on Wednesday — a threshold that will weed out some “no hopers”.
Candidates will need 30 votes to reach the second round, which takes place on Thursday. The final two candidates will be decided early next week, possibly as early as Monday.
Many Tory MPs are convinced Sunak will make the final shortlist of two names, after MPs have completed a breakneck process to whittle down a field of 11 candidates vying to be Britain’s next prime minister.
But he could then face a rival promising a small state and lower taxes — such as foreign secretary Liz Truss — a message which could resonate with the Tory activists who will decide the winner.
A survey by ConservativeHome, an activists’ website, found that Penny Mordaunt, trade minister, and Kemi Badenoch, former equalities minister, were rated more highly by party members than Sunak, with Truss fourth.
One leader of a rival campaign said: “Rishi will be in the last two, but all of the Boris Johnson crowd and the Tory right are out to get him.” His critics claim he was “treacherous” towards Johnson and is a serial tax-raiser.
The final two names will be put to Tory members for a final choice over the summer, with a view to them electing a new leader — and therefore prime minister — when the House of Commons returns on September 5.
Sunak emerged on Monday as the clear bookmakers’ favourite with 38 publicly declared Tory MPs backing him by the evening; Penny Mordaunt, trade minister, was next with 23 backers.
Truss and Badenoch are also making progress, while Tom Tugendhat, foreign affairs committee chair, is winning backers from the moderate One Nation wing of the party.
Sunak is under pressure from his rivals. Sajid Javid, former health secretary, and Nadhim Zahawi, the new chancellor, both criticised Sunak’s record on putting up taxes to their highest overall level for 70 years on Monday.
Javid, launching his own leadership bid, also made a pointed dig at Sunak, saying that, unlike the former chancellor, he did not have a “ready-made logo or slick video ready to go”.
Many Tory MPs believe that Sunak will face a run-off with a tax-cutting candidate from the Tory right and one ally of Sunak said: “He’s got to sort out the tax thing quickly.”
Mordaunt, a Brexiter not widely known in the country but popular with grassroots Tories, is billing herself as a “small state, low tax” Tory, but she also wants investment in infrastructure and innovation to boost growth.
The Conservative party membership — thought to number more than 100,000 — is often regarded as older and more rightwing than typical Tory voters and more likely to favour a candidate from the right.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, criticised the candidates for making largely unfunded tax-cutting promises. “The arms race of fantasy economics is well under way,” he said.