Rishi Sunak has positioned himself as the underdog in the Conservative leadership race, claiming the “forces that be” want Liz Truss to be the next prime minister.
Addressing a crowd in Grantham on Saturday, the Lincolnshire home town of Margaret Thatcher, Sunak declared “have no doubt, I am the underdog” and suggested that Conservative party powers want the race to be “a coronation” for Truss.
“The forces that be want this to be a coronation for the other candidate. But I think members want a choice and they are prepared to listen,” he said during a speech, surrounded by supporters carrying signs with his campaign slogan “Ready for Rishi”.
Truss, whom he did not refer to by name, has pledged to review all EU laws kept after Brexit by the end of next year in a “red tape bonfire” if she becomes prime minister.
The former chancellor refused to elaborate on who the opposing figures were, but reiterated that he was not the favourite. “I was talking generically, but obviously I start this part of the contest in the underdog position,” he told reporters afterwards.
He said the NHS would be “safe in my hands” and warned it faced its biggest crisis in decades amid a “backlog emergency”. He has promised to set up a “vaccines-style” taskforce to tackle the backlog.
He said his other priorities would include keeping Brexit and the union “safe”, tackling illegal immigration and crime and ensuring that regardless of their parents or background, a child’s “birthright should be a world-class education”.
“If we are to deliver on the promise of Brexit, then we’re going to need someone who actually understands Brexit, believes in Brexit, voted for Brexit,” he said to cheers.
Describing himself as “a product of immigration”, he said Britain “mustn’t lose compassion but must be tougher”.
On the cost of living crisis, he said he would “grip inflation and bring it down”, describing rising inflation as “the enemy that makes everyone poorer”.
He said the country must be told “the truth about tax” – claiming he would cut tax but not until tackling rising inflation.
“We have to tell the truth about the cost of living,” he said. “Rising inflation is the enemy that makes everyone poorer and puts at risk your homes and your savings.”
He called for the need for radicalism in politics, telling the crowd: “Real change is there, I swear it.”
On defence spending, he said 3% was not a plan but an “arbitrary target” and promised to do what is needed to keep the country safe.
During questions, he described his approach to the economy – tackling inflation before cutting taxes – as “common-sense Thatcherism”, believing it was “what Margaret Thatcher would have done”.
Asked whether Truss was misleading on tax cuts, he said increasing government borrowing would be “immoral”.
Experts and union leaders said Truss’s proposals to tear up red tape would be hugely difficult to achieve in the context of civil service cuts, with warnings it could end up becoming a “bonfire of rights”.
Truss and Sunak have begun a blitz of policy announcements in an attempt to edge ahead in the Conservative leadership runoff. Ballot papers will start arriving on party members’ doormats in little more than a week, though they have until 2 September to vote.
The two candidates, who made it through an initial stage of voting by MPs, will take part in a series of hustings events for members, starting in Leeds on Thursday. They will also go head to head in a televised debate on Monday.
Sunak’s speech came after he told the Times the UK needed to be on a “crisis footing” to deal with inflation and a host of other challenges.
“They’re challenges that are staring us in the face and a business-as-usual mentality isn’t going to cut it in dealing with them. So from day one of being in office, I’m going to put us on a crisis footing,” the former chancellor said.
He also suggested the foreign secretary’s plans could cause interest rates to rise, while rejecting the suggestion he is running a “project fear”.
However, in an interview with the Telegraph, Truss defended her economic vision. Describing herself as an “insurgent” who wants to change things, she told the newspaper she wanted the UK to become a “high growth, high productivity powerhouse”.