The Conservative Party has postponed the sending of ballot papers for the leadership election due to security concerns.
The party has made changes to the process on advice from the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC), part of GCHQ, following warnings that hackers could change members’ votes.
Under the party’s original system, members would be able to vote but change their decision while the ballot remained open, but now a unique code will be given which will only allow one, unchanging vote.
The ballots were supposed to be sent out from Monday, but could now arrive as late as Thursday 11 August.
A Conservative spokesman said: “We have consulted with the NCSC throughout this process and have decided to increase security around the ballot process.
“Eligible members will begin receiving ballots this week.”
An NCSC spokesman said: “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.
“As you would expect from the UK’s National Cyber Security Authority, we advised the Conservative Party on security considerations for the online leadership vote.”
The Daily Telegraph said it understood there was no specific threat from a hostile state and concerns were around the vulnerability of the voting process.
The party has been forced to abandon plans to allow members to change their vote if they change their decision about which candidate to support during the election process, the newspaper reported.
A message sent to members said that if they want to vote online, they must enter the one-time code and complete security questions.
If they choose to vote by post, their online code will be deactivated once the ballot is received, “reducing the risk of fraud”.
The message to members said “it is an offense to vote more than once” – with the threat of withdrawing membership for anyone found to have done so.
Former party treasurer Lord Cruddas of Shoreditch, who campaigned to keep Boris Johnson in office, said the leadership contest should be suspended as a result of the cyber security concerns.
In a letter to the party’s board, he said members should then be given a vote on whether to accept Johnson’s resignation.
“If members vote to keep Boris, there will be no need for a leadership campaign and no more cyber security threats,” he said.
Rishi Sunak seemed to have lost ground in the race, but the delay may give him more time to make an impact before the votes are cast.
A YouGov poll puts Liz Truss well ahead of the former chancellor in support from party members, with her lead increasing to 34 points.
It shows that 60% of party members polled between July 29 and August 2 say they intend to vote for the foreign secretary, up from 49% since July 20-21 when rivals first managed to cut for the two last.
Support for Sunak has fallen from 31% to 26%, according to YouGov, with the rest of the 1,043 Conservative party members polled saying they are undecided or will not vote.
In a further blow to Sunak, YouGov data also showed that 83% of those who currently say they intend to vote for Truss also say they have made up their minds.
Only 17% say they may change their mind, while 29% of Sunak’s supporters say they may still vote differently.
But the Sunak campaign will be hoping that the extra time to make its case before the first votes are cast will go in their favour.
The Truss campaign spent Tuesday carrying out damage control after abandoning a flagship policy to cut £8.8bn from public sector pay outside London.
The announcement on Monday night faced fierce opposition from senior conservatives, who said it would “flatten” the nation by leaving nurses, police officers and teachers worse off.
Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, who supports Sunak, said the proposed pay policy had left him “speechless”, suggesting it would have cost the party the next general election if implemented.
Houchen told BBC Radio 4’s World At One program that the “horribly bad” policy “could be Liz’s dementia tax moment”, drawing comparisons to Theresa May’s scrapped policies which were blamed for her poor 2017 election results.
Sunak’s camp claimed the move was not a mistake, saying Truss had requested the move when she was chief secretary to the Treasury in 2018.
“The lady is for flipping,” said a source, mocking the minister over comparisons she draws to former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
But Mrs Truss insisted her policy had been “misrepresented”.
Speaking to the BBC in Dorset, she said: “I’m afraid my policy on this has been misrepresented. I never had any intention of changing the conditions for teachers and nurses.
“But what I want to be clear about is that I will not go ahead with the regional wage boards, that is no longer my policy.”
Former Chief Whip Mark Harper told Truss to stop “blaming journalists – reporting what a press release says is not ‘deliberate misrepresentation'”.
“So this u-turn has wiped out £8.8bn of savings. Where are these going to come from now?” said the Tory MP for the Forest of Dean.
“An economic policy that cannot be paid for is not very conservative. Mrs Thatcher would be mad.”
But after a mixed day, Mrs Truss was given a campaign boost with support from the Daily Mail.
A Truss campaign source said on the YouGov poll: “Members make up their minds and they support Liz.
“Her bold and ambitious plan for the country and the economy unites conservatives across our nation. But we are certainly not complacent – Liz is fighting for every vote and meeting as many members as possible.”