Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak bid to put brake on Penny Mordaunt

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Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak bid to put brake on Penny Mordaunt
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The three frontrunners in the Tory leadership race were locked in a fierce battle on Thursday over who has the top-level experience to be the next Prime Minister.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss officially launched her leadership bid and ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak took to the airwaves after former international development secretary Penny Mordaunt was seen at Westminster to have gained early momentum.

She came second in the first round of voting, with the backing of 67 MPs, after a widely-praised launch and a poll which showed she would beat the other two in the vote among party members.

But Ms Mordaunt has less experience at the Government top table and her rivals were seeking to exploit this as the leadership race heated up.

She was also hit by ferocious attacks by hardline Brexiteers, who claimed she was not up to the job of PM, but responded by defiantly tweeting: “The March of Mordaunt!”

The Tory infighting erupted ahead of the second round of voting around lunchtime.

At her launch in central London on Thursday morning, Ms Truss highlighted the string of Cabinet posts that she has held, saying: “I am ready to be Prime Minister from day one.”

She stressed that as Foreign Secretary she had “stood up” to Vladimir Putin, as Trade Secretary had “struck dozens of new deals with major partners” and as Chief Secretary to the Treasury had a “firm grip on the nation’s finances”.

Having pledged to axe April’s National Insurance rise, she took a swipe at Mr Sunak, arguing: “We Foreign Secretary she had “stood up” to Vladimir Putin, as Trade Secretary had “struck dozens of new deals with major partners” and as Chief Secretary to the Treasury had a “firm grip on the nation’s finances”.

Having pledged to axe April’s National Insurance rise, she took a swipe at Mr Sunak, arguing: “We cannot have business-as-usual economic management which has led us to low growth for decade after decade.” She added: “The British people are crying out for a united and modern Conservative Government ready with the courage of its convictions to deliver on its promises.”

Ms Truss came third in Wednesday’s vote, with 50 MPs, and would probably need to get most of the support from the other two Right-wingers, Attorney General Suella Braverman and ex-equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, to make it to the shortlist of two contenders to be put to party members in a postal vote over the summer. Her critics have attacked her as the “Continuity Boris” candidate. Pressed on this issue at her launch, she said: “I’m a loyal person, I’m loyal to Boris Johnson, I supported our Prime Minister’s aspirations and I want to deliver the promise of the 2019 manifesto.”

Mr Sunak targeted her pledge for immediate tax cuts and stressed his “experience” in the Treasury. As he sought to build on his first position in the first round of voting, when he got the backing of 88 MPs, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t cut taxes to win elections, I win elections to cut taxes, and I’m convinced that I’m the best person to beat Keir Starmer and the Labour Party at the next election. I will get taxes down in this Parliament, but I’m going to do so responsibly.”

Mr Sunak had to fend off political “dark art” claims about former Chief Whip Sir Gavin Williamson’s role in his campaign and also over whether he was too wealthy to understand the needs of voters. “Whenever I have needed to step in to support people I have, and furlough is a fantastic example of that,” he said.

Mr Sunak has also faced controversy over his US green card, his wife’s previous non-dom status, and accusations that he has been plotting for months to challenge Mr Johnson.

Ms Mordaunt was hit with a full-blown attack by ex-Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, who told Talk TV: “I have worked with Penny, to be honest I am quite surprised she is where she is. She was my deputy, more notionally than really, in the Brexit talks last year… I am sorry to say this … I felt she didn’t master the detail necessary in the negotiations...I had to ask the PM to move her on and find somebody else to support me.”

But Caroline Nokes MP, who chairs the Commons women and equalities, leapt to Ms Mordaunt’s defence.

“Penny has a breadth of experience across Government that I would say is unrivalled by any of the other contenders,” she said. Ahead of voting in the second round :

  • Tom Tugendhat, who got 37 votes in the first round, said that despite reports to the contrary he had no intention of withdrawing from the race.

  • Supporters of Suella Braverman, who just secured the necessary threshold of 30 votes in the first round, appealed to Tory MPs on the Right to back her, playing up her tough views on Brexit, immigration and the European Court of Human Rights.

  • Ex-safeguarding minister Rachel McClean said she was backing Ms Badenoch because she was the candidate to focus on creating “wealth and jobs”.

The contenders who get through the second round face a series of TV debates starting on Friday.

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