Take care of the Penny and the pounds will take care of themselves

By Rebecca Coleman

There’s little doubt that Team Truss will have woken up this morning pleased with the performance of their leader last night. Indeed, a glance at today’s front pages shows Liz leading the daily headlines on three fronts: her (rather unprovoked) attack on ‘attention seeking’ First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, her ‘war on Whitehall’, and  her rather surprising new warm-up act and latest endorser, Penny Mordaunt.

That’s not to say the hustings, which took place in Exeter last night, were a zero-sum game. Team Rishi would have also risen, feeling buoyed after Sunak’s ‘strong and stable’ performance. Whilst Penny’s counterpart Liam Fox was never going to set the world on fire, Sunak’s candidness and energy appeared to land well with prospective voters. His team will also be gratefully picking up rumours laid by John Curtice, that the latest polls put the two candidates closer than previously thought.

Mordaunt was a surprise endorsement for Truss, kept a secret right up until the last second when she took to the stage yesterday evening. Despite being unlikely allies (it’s widely believed the smear campaign against the Trade Secretary came from the Truss campaign), Mordaunt praised Truss’ ‘graft, her authenticity, her determination, her ambition’, labelling her ‘the hope candidate’ to the 1,250 Conservative voters in attendance.

The endorsement would certainly have rattled Rishi. With Mordaunt seen as more moderate and less drawn into ‘the war on woke’ by Tory voters, the backing shows Truss’ campaign is perhaps reaching across parts of the Conservative membership Sunak is relying on. 

However, as the day goes on, the mood in Truss’ camp will have quickly turned sour. Just hours after her declaration of war, Liz has been forced into a swift U-turn on ending the national pay deal, which currently sees public sector wages matched across the country. The pledge, described as ‘a pay cut for Northerners’, saw a brutal backlash from Northern conservatives, with the sentiment quickly spreading across the UK. Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, labelled the policy ‘horrifically bad’, suggesting it would see 5.5 million public servants (including nurses, police officers and teachers) see their pay reduced.

The policy itself sought to introduce regional pay boards to ‘tailor pay to the cost of living where civil servants actually work’, acting on waste in Whitehall and saving up to £8.8bn in the process. It is thought to be based on a report from the Taxpayers Alliance, which looked across the whole public sector workforce with no exceptions. Indeed, the Institute for Government has said that the £8.8bn saving would not be feasible from civil servants’ pay packets alone. Team Truss has claimed that the pledge has been ‘wilfully misrepresented’ by journos, despite it being included in their own press release just hours before. Meanwhile, Mr Sunak’s campaign has labelled the backtrack as being demonstrative of ‘a lack of serious judgement’ and a ‘worrying lack of grip of detail’.

Today’s explosive backlash comes just as polling by More in Common showed that voters – especially those in the red wall – back Truss’ economic arguments over Sunak’s. It now remains to be seen what the ramifications of tomorrow’s headlines will be. However, the i newspaper has been quick to declare the Tory leadership race ‘reignited’ and with ten hustings still to go, that may not be an exaggeration. Truss must prove to Tory voters that her policy is not just made up of catchy soundbites and flashy endorsements but goes to the heart of addressing the cost-of-living crisis and fixing the Conservative image. As the candidates leave Exeter, home of the Met Office, Truss’ outlook now looks less clear skies, and more cloudy with a chance of thunder.