Rishi Sunak’s campaign has hit out at frontrunner Liz Truss after she declined to attend a hustings organised by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
It comes as it was confirmed that Ms Truss will take part in a hustings with the NFU in September, after she was initially accused of snubbing the organisation by deciding not to attend the event on Friday.
Mr Sunak, her rival for the Tory leadership, did attend the event in Warwickshire, where he promised to lead the “most pro-farming and pro-countryside government this country has seen in decades”.
Mr Sunak’s team said Ms Truss’s absence “raises questions about her willingness to listen to the needs of farmers and the wider food industry”.
NFU president Minette Batters on Thursday told The Guardian newspaper it was a “shame” Ms Truss did not want to attend the hustings.
Farmers have been among the groups angered by some of the post-Brexit trade deals championed by the Foreign Secretary, which they see as undercutting their livelihoods.
If we let our farmers down, we will be rightly punished at the ballot box at the general election.
Our farmers are the lifeblood of our nation.
As PM, I would make sure that they are supported to underpin the food security that is so important to us all. https://t.co/pL4gipJgMO
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) August 19, 2022
Ms Truss was also expected to be quizzed about claims from Environment Secretary George Eustice, who supports Mr Sunak, that she had been resistant to putting animal welfare standards in UK trade deals.
In a statement to the PA news agency, Ms Batters said on Thursday: “We have written and had responses from both candidates asking them to outline their plans for British food and farming, which we have published online.
“In addition, we have offered both candidates the opportunity to speak to farmers at a hustings event of their choice about their plans and currently Rishi Sunak has agreed to take part. This offer remains open to Liz Truss and we are in contact with her team.”
On Friday, the NFU said Ms Truss will now attend a hustings with the farming body on September 1, making it one of the final husting events of the leadership campaign.
The Truss campaign confirmed she will take part in a Zoom event with the NFU on that date.
Ms Batters told the PA news agency she was “really pleased” that Ms Truss had agreed to take part in the hustings.
“We are an apolitical organisation and we engage with all parties at all times,” she said.
“It is vital that we do have those conversations, effectively, with everyone, everywhere.”
There were, Ms Batters said, around 100 people in the room, with 600 more watching online on Friday to hear what Mr Sunak had to say.
She said Mr Sunak spoke positively about taking a statutory approach to food production, as well as chairing food security summits, if he becomes prime minister.
The Sunak campaign said the former chancellor “announced that he will set a new food security target, aggressively champion local produce, ensure the sector has the labour it needs and take time to negotiate trade deals in the best interests of British farmers”.
A spokesman added: “He will support farmers to boost their productivity and profitability and protect our best farmland. Farmers are the lifeblood of our nation. A Rishi Sunak-led government will make sure that there is a bright future ahead for British agriculture, and he will always engage positively with the industry.”
Truss allies, responding to the criticism from the Sunak campaign, stressed that she would champion farmers as prime minister.