Conservative leadership race is already turning out to be ill-tempered, vicious and ugly

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Eight contenders in the race to replace Boris Johnson. But it was a day defined by one particular run-off in the competition: the tussle between frontrunner Rishi Sunak and the "Stop Rishi" campaign.

It's a drama that's got everyone in Westminster reaching for the popcorn, as those loyal to Boris Johnson take very public aim against the politician they seem to blame the most for the current prime minister's demise.

Mr Johnson might have told me on Monday that he didn't want to engage in reflections on betrayal for fear it might hamper the race for some, but his backers are doing it on his behalf in a contest that is ill-tempered, vicious and ugly.

Leading from the front is Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who verbalised the conflict openly on Tuesday night as she publicly weighed into rumours that Team Rishi had helped Jeremy Hunt get onto the ballot by describing them as "dirty tricks/a stitch up/dark arts" all designed to get Mr Hunt into the final two.

It was an accusation that prompted push back, as a supporter of the Sunak camp told me that sort of behaviour was not how Mr Sunak was running things: "That behaviour is not happening. It's a dirty story being run by anti-Rishi people."

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ms Dorries and James Cleverly, a triumvirate of Johnson loyalists, dropped into the Truss camp on Tuesday as the foreign secretary became the anointed choice of the Johnson operation.

Mr Rees-Mogg told me he was backing Ms Truss over Mr Sunak because of policy issues, around Brexit and taxation, rather than raw politics.

He then said this: "It's very interesting that somebody should start a campaign, according to reports, in December last year."

Be in no doubt, Boris Johnson backers believe Mr Sunak was instrumental in bringing him down.

Read more:
Who are the contenders to be the next prime minister?
How many backers does each candidate have so far?
The tax cut and spending pledges by leadership hopefuls

What is less clear is how this will play out. At the moment, it looks like Mr Sunak is most likely to make it to the final two as Ms Truss and Penny Mordaunt vie for the second spot.

For Ms Truss, there is an expectation that the right of the party, and Mr Johnson backers, will fold into her campaign over Ms Mordaunt and Mr Sunak.

But it is true too that there is a "stop Liz Truss" campaign - perhaps fuelled by Johnson animosity - on the backbenches that could benefit Ms Mordaunt into the final round.

That is because a number of MPs worry that, while Ms Truss might appeal to party members, she won't appeal to the wider public. Ms Mordaunt is then a safer bet.

But on the other hand, and this is where dark arts come into play, the Sunak camp knows Ms Truss is easier to beat in the final two than Ms Mordaunt.

In a members' poll by website Conservative Home on Tuesday, the trade minister led the former chancellor by 58% to 31%. So might Sunak's team try to thwart a Sunak/Mordaunt run-off by lending votes to Liz Truss?

These are all questions that we will get the answers to in the coming days.

But what stands out the most in the starting stages of this race is how bitter the divisions in the party have become and how wide open the battle to become prime minister now is.

Sky News is hosting a live TV debate with the contenders vying to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and therefore prime minister, and you could be in the virtual audience.

The debate will take place on Monday 18 July hosted by Sky News presenter Kay Burley.

If you would like to be a member of the virtual audience and be in with a chance of asking a question, please email NewsDebates@sky.uk.

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