Conservative leader and Prime Minister hopefuls Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss ignore left-behind rural voters at their peril - Sarah Todd

UNDERSTANDING rural voters is vital if whoever succeeds Boris Johnson as Prime Minister is going to keep the Conservative party in power.

Those living in country and coastal areas have politely put up and shut up throughout Brexit and the pandemic, understanding the Government had enough on its plate.

But now, without Mr Johnson buoying us along, country folk will start and wonder when ‘‘levelling up’’ is coming their way.

There is awkwardness about complaining in the countryside because of its chocolate box image.

Liz Truss goes up against Rishi Sunak. Pic: Getty.

However, rural areas have more than their fair share of food banks, drug problems, substandard schools and social care. Access to healthcare services can be limited to say the least.

It’s not correct to simply think of our nation as being a two-tier society of rich and poor, haves and have-nots. There are many more sub-divisions and these are perhaps more nuanced in rural areas than any other demographic.

For example those that have a car and those who don’t. Public transport in the countryside can teeter between non-existent and hit-and-miss. Not much good if you’ve got a job or doctor’s appointment to get to. Keeping going down this road, those with cars who live out-in-the-sticks are really feeling the stranglehold of the increased prices at the petrol pumps.

Our teenage son has young friends on apprenticeship schemes and their wages are being almost completely swallowed up by getting to work and then the day in college, a round trip of well over 60 miles, more than 100 for those out on the coast. It’s the same story all over the countryside. People need cars to get to work and the cost of filling them up is crippling. We aren’t talking about the move-to-the-country brigade (who have home offices or company cars) – this is hitting the carers, the shop and farm workers. That hidden layer of people who keep the countryside going.

House prices are another major headache for rural families; with some in power having the brass neck to suggest young people who have grown up in the countryside should simply move away if they ever want to buy a property. Why should they? It’s who they are; their ethnic background.

We live in an old house. The kitchen is well over 30 years old and there isn’t a single flash feature, yet our latest council tax bill is just a cat’s whisker under £3,500.

What are leadership election hopefuls Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss going to do to make country dwellers pay such astronomical amounts? For this voter, our outgoing premier just had to be himself; to twinkle and say something witty on the news. But now…

The only service we get is the bin emptying – and even then we have to drag it down to the bottom of the lane. It’s not collected from outside the house. Roads are covered in potholes. Grass verges are never cut so pavements are difficult to use and littered with discarded food packaging from all the delivery drivers that use sat-navs to cut through rural roads. There is no longer a telephone number for the local police station and chances are if you needed an ambulance it would get stuck in traffic on the main road, which incidentally has been waiting to be duelled for something like 40 years. There is no street lighting, no mobile library. No nothing.

Just because a house is theoretically worth so much it doesn’t mean the occupier has a disposable income. Are we all just supposed to throw in the towel and sell up to southerners who will paint the door a subtle shade of Farrow and Ball and not say ‘‘nowthen’’ to nobody?

There is something about Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s hand in instigating the departure of our Prime Minister that is rather unappealing. However, would the rural population be cutting its nose off to spite its face if it doesn’t support him?

Back in 2019, in his capacity as MP for Richmond, he came to the Yorkshire Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs annual forum. The rural youth movement has a long history of getting speakers to chew over the issues of the day. Genuinely, this correspondent came away from that cold winter’s night at Thirsk Auction Market saying, ‘he’ll end up Prime Minister’.

He took the cans of beer and rather robust questioning in his stride.

At the time he was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and said: “When there is a proposal for a housing development I only ever hear from people who want to stop new homes from being built.

“So my advice to you young farmers is to make sure your voices are heard. When you hear of plans for a new development you need to be campaigning to make sure there is a covenant for affordable housing for locals to be included.

“You need to be reminding those voicing their concerns against new builds that you are the lifeblood of rural areas and that communities ignore you at their peril.”

Sunak has spoken on rural matters extensively during his time in Parliament; from milk prices to food labelling and shooting.

Liz Truss’s constituency, in Norfolk, is also rural.

Her ministerial roles include a two-year stint as Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Secretary, moving on to the Department of Trade.

Here she negotiated a series of agreements with countries such as Australia and New Zealand that were controversial among British farmers; fearful they will open the floodgates to cheap and lower welfare standard meat imports.

Mind you, it has to be said; there is something about a mother-of-two who is on record as saying she uses her nose to sniff food rather than blindly following best-before dates…

- Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine and a farmer’s daughter.