State of the race

CLA Public Affairs Manager Rosie Nagle weighs up the five contenders for Prime Minister ahead of the three televised hustings taking place this weekend

And then there were five. Not a bungled attempt at an Agatha Christie remake but a check-in on the state of play with the Conservative leadership contest.

Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat remain on the ballot paper after Suella Braverman was knocked out in the second round of voting. As the field narrows, there is now the opportunity to scrutinise policy positions more closely. This week, for example, the candidates were asked their position on net zero, with Sunak, Mordaunt and Truss all committing to keeping to the UK’s targets, whilst Tugendhat and Badenoch said they would either delay or revise it. The position on net zero illuminates where the candidates are more broadly on the environment.

Ahead of the three televised hustings taking place this weekend, I have looked at the rural credentials of the remaining the candidates. Many of the 200,000 members of the Conservative Party who have a vote will live in the countryside. Therefore, it is vital that the prospective prime ministers have an understanding of how rural areas work, the issues that they face, and the anti-rural bias that seeps into policymaking.

We wrote to all candidates this week calling on them to set out an ambitious and robust plan for the countryside, including a copy of the recent All-Party Parliamentary Group's report and pointing to the power of the rural vote in recent byelection results. We have also engaged with parliamentarians involved in the strategic running of the campaigns and are exploring plans for a ‘rural ask’ of all candidates.

Rishi Sunak

Sunak is mostly known for his tenure as chancellor, and so the leadership campaign has been an opportunity for him to differentiate himself from the outgoing administration. Prior to his time in the Treasury, Sunak served on the Efra Select Committee for two years after his election to Parliament in 2015. His seat, Richmond in North Yorkshire, is mostly rural, so Sunak should understand many of the issues that rural communities face. He has also met with the CLA on constituency visits before, including earlier this summer. In terms of fiscal policy, while the government did a lot to help small businesses during the pandemic, such as furlough support, in his time as Chancellor since, the majority of policy seems to not been targeted at small or medium businesses, of which the majority of rural businesses are.

Penny Mordaunt

Mordaunt, the favourite according to multiple polls of Conservative members, has had a more under-the-radar government career, with various ministerial appointments. Her time as Paymaster General, which essentially is the official way of providing extra ministerial support, saw Mordaunt tasked with helping the weddings sector get back on their feet during the pandemic and solving issues that had arisen. At a meeting that I attended, she was well-versed in her brief and took the time to reassure attendees.

Her seat of Portsmouth North is an urban one, so Mordaunt will not have had a great deal of exposure to issues facing rural communities today. One of her most notable parliamentary speeches was on poultry welfare where it transpired Mordaunt slipped in the word ‘cock’ as a forfeit issued by Royal Navy colleagues. Won’t somebody please think of the chickens?

Liz Truss

Truss, on paper, has the strongest rural credentials being a former secretary of state at Defra and at the Department for International Trade. However, the general consensus of her tenure as Environment Secretary was disappointing, appearing disinterested to officials and stakeholders while in the brief. As International Trade Secretary, she was widely believed to have overridden key climate commitments in trade.

However, in her leadership campaign launch she said she wanted to ‘turbocharge the rural economy by focusing on farmers growing food and cutting pointless regulation’. Though farming accounts for only 5% of rural businesses, this commitment to growing the rural economy is welcome. Truss is MP for the very rural seat of South West Norfolk, which will likely influence her outlook.

Kemi Badenoch

Badenoch is, perhaps, the most unknown of all the remaining candidates. A former minister in both the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities as well as the Treasury, Badenoch has come out swinging with a range of policy positions, including dismantling the Treasury and creating a new Office for Economic Growth, run from No 10. This is in a similar vein to the APPG report recommendation calling for Rural Productivity Units, and a more focused approach to stimulating economic growth in the UK is important.

Badenoch has been MP for Saffron Walden since 2017, which is the most rural seat in Essex.

Tom Tugendhat

Finally, we have Tugendhat, who trails the pack. MP for Tonbridge and Malling, another rural-adjacent seat that has a strong commuter presence. Tugendhat’s parliamentary career to date has overwhelmingly centred on foreign policy, but he has set out his position on a number of policies, including reforming the tax code and allowing firms to fully expense their investments in plants and machinery against their tax bills. This would be welcome, and free up investment among rural businesses.

What's next

The concerns of our members – that farming is not profitable enough, that connectivity has been over-promised and under-delivered, and the stifling planning regulations that hinder development – will be the concerns of many of the Tory faithful. The sooner these candidates realise that, the better for us all.