The next 48 hours have the potential to be decisive when it comes to the outcome of the Tory leadership contest. This evening, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak will go head-to-head in a BBC primetime debate – followed by a second clash on Tuesday hosted by TalkTV. Depending on who you speak to, these debates could reset the dial or have no effect at all. But scratch the surface and ultimately both of the campaign teams view them as a moment of risk for their candidate ahead of the ballots going out next week.
It's Liz Truss who has the most to lose through the course of the two debates. The Foreign Secretary is the frontrunner now the contest has reached the membership stage. She holds a comfortable lead over Sunak in all recent membership polling – with a YouGov poll last week finding that among decided members she is on 64 per cent compared to Sunak's 38 per cent. It's also the case that even Truss's biggest supporters privately admit that debates are not her strong point. After the first debate of the contest on Channel 4, Truss scored the worst of the five candidates who took part in a snap poll of the general public. She put on a stronger performance in the ITV debate that followed – but still came in fourth in snap polling compared to Sunak in first.
It follows that Sunak – who is currently trailing – has the most to gain. He badly needs to kickstart his campaign given the tight timeframe until the ballots go out. A good performance by Sunak combined with a bad performance by Truss could allow the former chancellor to make up ground. But there is also risk in terms of the format. The BBC debate will see 2019 Tory voters throw in thoughts from the audience on the two candidates. It follows that Sunak could face questions over his loyalty towards Johnson – a narrative Truss supporters have been trying to push. There is also a higher level of expectation when it comes to Sunak than Truss. If Truss can make it through this week's debates relatively unscathed, her supporters believe, barring no surprise upsets, she will be on track to win the contest.