Conservative leadership race: Big guns turn fire on Penny Mordaunt ahead of TV clash

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Conservative leadership race: Big guns turn fire on Penny Mordaunt ahead of TV clash
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The main contenders in the Conservative race to become Britain’s next Prime Minister stepped up their attacks on Friday ahead of crunch TV showdowns.

All five remaining candidates in the contest to replace Boris Johnson will go head-to-head in make or break live TV debates, starting tonight on Channel 4 and then on Sunday on ITV. A third will take place on Sky on Tuesday.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak remained ahead in Thursday’s second round of voting by Tory MPs but trade minister and former defence secretary Penny Mordaunt was coming under heavy fire after she came second and increased her lead over third placed Liz Truss.

Two other contenders remain in the race, one nation Tory Tom Tugendhat and ex-equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, after Attorney General Suella Braverman crashed out.

With the third round of voting on Monday, this weekend looks set to be dominated by horse-trading among Conservative MPs as they try to work out who to back in a contest which has become increasingly acrimonious. Ms Mordaunt has attracted the most hostile briefing with rivals questioning her performance as a minister, her career as a Naval reservist and her views on gender identity.

One of her backers, the former Brexit secretary David Davis, has claimed she is the victim of a “black ops” campaign.

On Friday, Tory ex-leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who is supporting Foreign Secretary Ms Truss, appeared to take aim at Ms Mordaunt over her lack of experience at the top of government.

Speaking to LBC, he said: “We can’t just elect somebody because for a short period of time, they may look better than others. What we’re actually electing is not in a way a popularity contest, we’re electing somebody else to govern for probably two years.”

He added that with “a war going on in Europe for the first time since the Second World War and we need people who have gravitas and strength”.

Supporters of Ms Mordaunt dismissed the criticism, pointed to her wider public appeal and drew comparisons with ex-PM David Cameron’s rise in the 2005 leadership contest. Tory MP John Lamont told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Mr Cameron “was not all that well known among the wider electorate until the moment he became our leader. So I think Penny has a huge appeal.”

In other developments:

  • Sir Iain questioned Mr Sunak’s position on tax cuts insisting: “Liz has actually been very clear about this. Get that [tax] burden down but get it down now. I think Rishi Sunak is talking about doing it later. So my answer is: do it now because now is where people live their lives. Not sometime in the future.” The former chancellor has insisted he will lower taxes, which are rising to the highest level in 70 years, when inflation is back under control.

  • Pro-EU Tory MP Simon Hoare launched a Twitter tirade against the former Brexit minister Lord Frost who on Thursday attacked Ms Mordaunt on her record when she served as his deputy.

  • A supporter of the Badenoch campaign, the Orthodox Conservatives director Joseph Robertson, said the Tory membership was not “stupid” and remembers that Ms Truss was once a member of the Lib Dems and backed Remain in the Brexit referendum.

  • Red Wall Tory MP Richard Holden took aim at Mr Tugendhat, saying that people like him were virtually unknown outside the Westminster bubble. He added: “Rishi is a very, very well known character... Everybody else at the moment you know, some of those people will not really be household names outside Westminster… people like Tom.” An insider in Mr Tugendhat’s campaign said not being attached to the current Government was “one of his biggest strengths”.

Faced with growing attacks on her suitability to be Prime Minister, the Mordaunt camp on Friday released fresh polling, carried out for her campaign by Ipsos, which showed she was a more popular choice for PM with women voters who knew the main Tory candidates.

The poll also carried out a relatively small survey of over 100 Londoners which showed that in the capital 40 per cent think the Portsmouth North MP would do a good job as PM — four percentage points ahead of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and significantly ahead of her main Tory rivals. With the Conservatives losing three Tory boroughs in May’s local elections, Ms Mordaunt said: “This poll clearly shows that the Conservatives under my leadership will give Labour a run for their money. Some of our best councils are in this city and I vouch to win them back.”

Her hopes of being one of the final two candidates, who will face a final vote of Conservative party members before a new leader and Prime Minister is chosen by September 5, now hinge on whether the Right of the Tory party can unite behind Ms Truss. Ms Braverman, who polled 27 votes on Thursday, has thrown her support behind the Foreign Secretary after she was eliminated from the contest on Thursday, and she will hope to pick up the majority of Ms Badenoch’s support if she is eliminated in later rounds.

But much will depend on the TV debates, with Ms Mordaunt’s camp confident her personality and slick presentational skills will show Tory MPs she can appeal in a general election.

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