Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are seeking to woo rural communities as campaigning continues in the race for No 10, in which the former chancellor faces an uphill battle after his rival won the backing of another party heavyweight.
In a bid to revive his faltering campaign, Mr Sunak will on Saturday talk tough on identity politics in a speech attacking “woke nonsense”.
It is seen as a make-or-break weekend for the former chancellor before ballot papers begin dropping through party members’ letterboxes next week, as he has been consistently trailing Ms Truss in polls of those voters.
Both candidates to succeed Boris Johnson pledged to “champion the rural way of life” in pitches to countryside Conservatives.
Writing for the Countryside Alliance’s magazine, Ms Truss vowed to “scrap Whitehall-imposed top-down housing targets” and “place planning powers in the hands of local people”.
The South West Norfolk MP also promised to boost Britain’s domestic food production by “removing red tape” in the inspection regime for producers.
Mr Sunak, in a separate piece for the rural campaigning organisation’s magazine, said “farming is part of the DNA” of his North Yorkshire seat of Richmond as he vowed to “always back our farmers”.
While he said his “mission has always been to do things ‘for’ rural communities, not ‘to’ them”, the ex-chancellor did not set out specific policies to help them.
Mr Sunak was on the defensive over tax again in a crunch interview with Andrew Neil on Friday, rejecting accusations that his policies would result in recession and warning that Ms Truss’s plans for sweeping tax cuts would pour “fuel on the fire” of inflation.
But the Foreign Secretary’s tax pledge won over former Tory leadership rival Tom Tugendhat, who described it as being “founded on true Conservative principles” as he came out in support of her.
I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do to not put fuel on the fire of the inflation problem that we already haveRishi Sunak
With Ms Truss’s offer of more than £30 billion of unfunded tax cuts seeing her consistently leading in member surveys, Mr Sunak performed a U-turn this week by promising to temporarily slash VAT on energy bills.
However, the policy reversal appears to have failed to shore up support among Tory voters, who include the party faithful electing the next prime minister, of whom 43% believe Ms Truss would do a better job, compared with 32% for Mr Sunak, according to a BMG Research poll for the i newspaper.
In an apparent bid to enthuse Tory grassroots with hardened rhetoric on so-called culture war issues, Mr Sunak is expected to tell supporters in West Sussex on Saturday that he will prevent “left-wing agitators” from taking “a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values”.
He will vow to review the 2010 Equality Act, which he will call a “Trojan horse that has allowed every kind of woke nonsense to permeate public life”.
Mr Sunak was grilled by Neil on the economy, immigration and his wife’s tax status for nearly half an hour in Friday’s Channel 4 interview, something which Ms Truss has so far declined to take part in.
The veteran political journalist challenged Mr Sunak over his plans to tighten fiscal policy at a time when “the global economy grinds to a halt, as monetary policy has been tightening”, suggesting he would “ensure a recession”.
Taking a swipe at his rival’s economic vision, Mr Sunak said: “I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do to not put fuel on the fire of the inflation problem that we already have.
“What we should do is focus on long-term growth because that’s what we need, sustainable growth, not a sugar rush boom that will make us feel better for months, but then it runs out of control, let inflation get set into the system, let the Bank of England have to react with even higher interest rates.”
Mr Sunak said a recession was “not the forecast of the majority of most independent forecasters here in the UK” and denied that his pledge to cut VAT on energy bills was a U-turn that demonstrated “bad judgment”.
On immigration, Neil pressed him on his promise to cap the number of refugees the UK will accept and turn away “even legal asylum seekers”.
Mr Sunak replied: “Because there is a finite amount of asylum seekers that we are able to integrate and accommodate.
“At any moment in time, Andrew, there are probably a billion people that would love to move to the UK because this is an amazing country, so we clearly can’t accept all of those.”
The millionaire ex-chancellor looked uncomfortable as he batted away questions about his wife’s previous non-domiciled tax status, an arrangement which reportedly saved her millions, saying: “I’m the one running for office and not my wife.”
Mr Sunak’s fiscal policy came under fire from new Truss supporter Mr Tugendhat, who wrote in The Times that it is “not right” that the tax burden should be rising when people are heading into winter with “dread”.
The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee was the latest senior Tory to declare his backing of Ms Truss following Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s earlier endorsement, and it is significant due to his popularity among party members and leading status among centrist Conservative MPs.
Asked during a visit to Norfolk on Friday if she was confident she was now set to win the contest, the result of which will be announced on September 5, Ms Truss said: “I’m not at all complacent.
“I’m fighting for every vote across the country.”
In a thinly veiled swipe at the former chancellor’s record, the Foreign Secretary said it would be “risky” for the country to continue along the current economic path.
Ms Truss said the way to get growth is to “help people and businesses keep more of their own money”, saying the “number one priority should be avoiding recession”.