This could be the biggest week of the Tory leadership campaign: postal ballots will start arriving on members' doormats in the coming days and the chances are that most will fill them in and send them back pretty sharpish. Both candidates to be Prime Minister are consequently extremely busy: Rishi Sunak has been making tax cut promises (of the 'not yet 'variety: more on that from Fraser here) this morning, while Liz Truss has been talking about help for farmers suffering post-Brexit labour shortages. They're both in the south west of England today ahead of the latest hustings in Exeter tonight, with visits to members and in Truss's case, a trip to a farm planned.
Sunak obviously has much more work to do. At the first hustings in Leeds last Thursday, he found that the Foreign Secretary had grown more comfortable with public speaking, having struggled to, in the words of her own supporters, 'speak human' in previous fixtures. He is still trying to work out how to grapple with her: too aggressive and he is accused of being a public school mansplainer, yet too polite and her arguments gain an even firmer foothold in the party. His latest pledge to cut 4p off income tax is not the move of someone who feels comfortable with their campaign. Even though Sunak is trying to say that cutting the basic rate of income tax from 20 per cent to 16 per cent by the end of the next parliament is an example of sound fiscal management, it still looks as though he is trying to copy Truss, who has spent most of the campaign trying to find previously undiscovered taxes that she can promise to cut. On the Today programme this morning, he said 'this is entirely consistent with what I've been saying for a long time', arguing that he had set out a plan to cut income tax in this parliament when he was the Chancellor.
Sunak is also struggling against the tide of ambitious MPs who are now starting to fold behind Truss, with Nadhim Zahawi and Tom Tugendhat backing the Foreign Secretary in the past few days. Zahawi has written in the Telegraph that 'we need a "booster" attitude to the economy, not a "doomster" one'. Tugendhat's endorsement was more surprising given his politics, but totally sensible given he may not wish to remain chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee forever. But when the people who want jobs start to turn towards the likely victor, then it's hard to change the narrative.
One hope for Sunak might be that members can change their vote if they want: as well as voting by post, they can also go online, and the party will only count the vote that arrives the closest to the deadline. But that relies on members being very engaged with the contest and changing their minds. It also relies on Sunak coming up with something game-changing in the next few weeks, and it's currently difficult to see what that might be.