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Truss Widens UK Poll Lead as U-Turn on Public-Worker Pay Gives Sunak Hope

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(Bloomberg) -- Liz Truss extended her poll lead over leadership rival Rishi Sunak, suggesting she’s on track to succeed Boris Johnson as UK prime minister.

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Tuesday’s YouGov poll of Conservative Party members for the Times newspaper put the foreign secretary 34 points ahead of her opponent. That’s significantly wider than the 18-point lead she enjoyed in the pollster’s last survey almost two weeks ago.

The development is a timely boost for the Truss campaign, which on Tuesday suffered its most difficult day of the contest following an embarrassing u-turn on a plan to align civil service pay to the regional cost of living, less than 24 hours after announcing the policy. It’s also a major blow to Sunak, who had hoped to be closing the gap, arguing he rather than Truss was the candidate of “change.”

Even so, the bulk of the July 29-Aug. 2 polling was carried out before Truss’s about-turn on civil service pay. That followed a furious backlash from Tory politicians at the proposal, which they argued would depress pay in regions outside London and the southeast.

Truss had said late Monday that she planned to establish regional pay boards to align civil service salaries to living costs in their area. The policy, her campaign said, could save the British taxpayer £8.8 billion ($10.8 billion) a year if extended across the public sector -- a workforce that includes nurses, teachers and the police.

‘Terrible Idea’

The proposal appeared to directly contradict Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election manifesto pledge to “level up” economic opportunity across the country, and the backlash followed on Tuesday morning.

Tory MP Steve Double called it a “terrible idea” that was “hugely damaging to public services. and fellow southwest England MP Gary Streeter called the proposal “disastrous.” Ben Houchen, the Tory Tees Valley mayor said he was “speechless.”

Truss’s campaign then put out a statement saying there had been a “willful misrepresentation” of the plan and that it was “simply wrong” to suggest she was going to cut public sector pay. The proposal for regional pay boards was abandoned.

“This has been an unusual and serious misstep from the Truss campaign,” said Salma Shah, a former Tory government adviser. “The particular issue isn’t just about presenting an unpopular policy, it’s not taking ownership of it when a backlash emerged. This type of display of immaturity is not helpful to Liz Truss’s image.”

Welsh Encounter

Truss later on Tuesday told the BBC: “I never had any intention of changing the terms and conditions of teachers and nurses.”

The two candidates on Wednesday will attend a leadership hustings among party members in Cardiff, Wales that’s likely to show if Truss’s fleeting flirtation with regional pay boards has damaged her. One Sunak-supporting Welsh Tory MP, Fay Jones, said that if the plan were implemented, it would hit Wales particularly badly.

But the YouGov poll suggests the momentum is with Truss, and she may have limited the damage by quickly abandoning the pay policy.

YouGov surveyed 1,043 Tory members and found that 60% said they’d vote for Truss, compared to 26% who opted for Sunak, the former chancellor whose resignation helped precipitate Johnson’s downfall. Almost nine in ten Tory members said they had made up their mind about how they would vote.

Changing Rules

Sunak suffered a further blow on Tuesday when the Conservative Party confirmed it would not allow members to change their votes during the contest. With the winner not due to be announced until Sept. 5, the party had originally planned to give members the opportunity to revise their vote online after submitting it, but ditched the proposal after consultation with the National Cyber Security Centre.

Sunak had hoped that members who currently favor Truss might switch their vote to him as the contest progressed over the summer.

“Defending UK democratic and electoral processes is a priority for the NCSC and we work closely with all parliamentary political parties, local authorities and MPs to provide cyber security guidance and support,” the center said in a statement. “We provided advice to the Conservative Party on security considerations for online leadership voting.”

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