Inside Liz Truss And Rishi Sunak's Brutal Battle For The Soul Of The Tory Party (Photo: Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images)
“Liz Truss as prime minister of a G7 nation. Are you fucking kidding me?”
With one comment, a senior Rishi Sunak supporter summed up the bitter civil war threatening to engulf the Conservative Party over the next few weeks.
When it was pointed out that she would be replacing the less-than-conventional Boris Johnson in Number 10, they replied: “She’s arguably worse.”
Tory members appear to disagree. According to the latest YouGov poll, she leads Sunak by a hefty 24-point margin. With voting due to begin within days, that lead could already be insurmountable.
Nevertheless, as both candidates prepare to tour the country setting out their competing visions for the future of their party, supporters of the former chancellor insist they remain confident of victory.
Grassroots Conservatives, they say, will ultimately reject Truss’s promises of immediate tax cuts – priced at £30bn a year by the Institute for Fiscal Studies – in favour of Sunak’s steady-as-she goes approach.
One of his key allies said: “I am very confident the Conservative Party will decide that defeating inflation, fiscal responsibility and sound money has to come before tax cuts.
“Once you’ve dealt with those, then you can deliver tax cuts, but you can’t deliver tax cuts first without defeating inflation.”
Liz Truss speaks to the press during a visit to the children's charity, Little Miracles in Peterborough. (Photo: Stefan Rousseau via PA Wire/PA Images)
Truss has pledged to reverse the national insurance rise and scrap the planned increase in corporation tax – both policies proposed by Sunak when he was in Number 11.
The foreign secretary has also promised to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP, while insisting there will be no return to the austerity policies of the Cameron years.
“The policies that she’s setting out, I don’t think are being straight with people,” said one former cabinet minister who is part of Sunak’s campaign.
“Rishi has said he’s being straight with people about the challenges they face and I don’t think you can deliver massive tax cuts – and by the way very significant expenditure rises – and just borrow the money and don’t think that has any affect on inflation. I just don’t think those things make sense.”
Rishi Sunak arrives for a hustings event with the Conservative Councillors' Association. (Photo: Dominic Lipinski via PA Media)
Dubbed “the human hand grenade” by Dominic Cummings, Truss’s strategy is to pitch herself as the change candidate committed to overturning 20 years of “orthodoxy” on how the country should be run.
The former chief secretary to the Treasury believes massive tax cuts are needed to jump-start the sluggish UK economy because more of the same will not work.
“She spent two years in the Treasury, she understands the way they think,” said one campaign insider. “She’s spent her life thinking about bold economic reforms and wants to deliver a very different set of policies.
“They are not unfunded and we don’t believe they are inflationary. Not putting up corporation tax, for instance, will drive growth and create jobs.”
Tory bosses fear the damage done to the party’s reputation as both campaigns slug it out between now and the result being announced on September 5 will take years to fix.
The country was given a glimpse of the ill-feeling between the pair in the recent ITV debate, with Sunak goading Truss about her Lib Dem and Remain-voting past, while she took aim at his privileged upbringing.
With two TV debates and 12 hustings taking place over the next six weeks, there will be ample opportunity for both candidates to mount further verbal assaults on their opponent.
One Tory MP observed: “What a mess. Getting rid of Boris for a fresh start and we’ve ended up with Batshit and the Billionaire.”
Another former minister said Sunak could yet emerge victorious, but it would probably require Truss to “implode” during the campaign.
The scale of the challenge facing the former chancellor is compounded by the fact that ballot papers will be sent out within the next two weeks, with many Tory members expected to vote immediately, giving Sunak precious little time to win them round.
One senior backbencher said: “Liz’s campaign got off to a ropey start, but she’s got better people around her now and seems far more serious.
“If Liz’s message is ‘I’m not polished and I’m not the greatest communicator, I just get on with it and get things done’, that will be very effective.
“It’s not a done deal, but Rishi’s definitely the underdog now.”
Labour, meanwhile, can afford to sit back and watch the drama unfold.
One party source told HuffPost UK: “I don’t think it’s dawned on the Tories what a hole they are in. They’ve got two continuity candidates, busily trashing each other and their entire record in government.
“The message is ’12 years of shit and it’s getting worse. Vote for us’.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.