Penny Mordaunt gains on Rishi Sunak as Tory leadership rivals face first TV showdown

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·5-min read
Penny Mordaunt gains on Rishi Sunak as Tory leadership rivals face first TV showdown
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Penny Mordaunt has closed the gap on frontrunner Rishi Sunak as the five Tory leadership contenders prepare to face a TV debate showdown on Friday evening.

The former defence secretary also stretched further ahead of third-place Liz Truss as Suella Braverman was eliminated in Thursday’s second ballot of Tory MPs.

The Attorney General lost five supporters, while Ms Mordaunt picked up 16 extra backers - putting the international trade minister on 83 votes in the contest to replace Boris Johnson.

Ex-Chancellor Mr Sunak remains the frontrunner with 101 supporters, up from 88 in the first round of voting on Wednesday.

Ms Truss, the Foreign Secretary, received 64, an increase of 14 on Wednesday’s ballot, which saw Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt eliminated from the race. Surprise challenger Kemi Badenoch scored 49 votes on Thursday - a gain of nine.

 (Press Association Images)
(Press Association Images)

Mr Sunak said he was “incredibly grateful” for the support of his colleagues following the second ballot, which leaves him closing in on the 120 votes required to guarantee a place in the final two, who will face a vote of the Tory membership to decide the next party leader and prime minister.

“I am prepared to give everything I have in service to our nation,” he added.

“Together we can restore trust, rebuild our economy and reunite the country.”

Soldier turned MP Tom Tugendhat lost support, receiving 32 endorsements compared to 37 in the first ballot.

But he said he would not be bowing out of the contest and would take part in the planned TV debates, scheduled for Friday, Sunday and Monday.

“The campaign for #ACleanStart continues,” he tweeted.

“Thank you to all my friends and colleagues who have pledged their support.

“We need trust back in our politics. I will be putting my vision for Britain forward to the public at the TV debates next week.”

Ms Braverman is understood to be preparing to announce her support for Ms Truss instead of Kemi Badenoch, who is seen as the other right-wing hope to keep Mr Sunak or Ms Mordaunt out of No 10.

Sources close to Ms Braverman told the PA news agency she made the decision after holding talks with Ms Truss.

Attorney General Suella Braverman was eliminated from the race (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Attorney General Suella Braverman was eliminated from the race (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Ms Truss, who made a campaign launch speech earlier on Thursday, will hope that she can serve as a standard-bearer for the party’s right, picking up supporters from not only Ms Braverman but also Ms Badenoch, who is under pressure from the Foreign Secretary’s allies to pull out of the contest.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a Truss supporter, said: “Now is the time for us all to unite behind a candidate who actually has the ability to lead the country as PM.”

Ms Badenoch said she is “disappointed” that Ms Braverman was not backing her, and suggested an offer of a future Cabinet job could have been behind the decision.

“I know people want to support the person that they think is most likely to give them a job, or who has been there the longest, that’s the easy thing to do, the tough thing to do is to take a risk and try something different,” she told LBC radio.

Ms Braverman earlier singled out Ms Mordaunt for criticism, accusing her of failing to stand up for women in her apparent support of trans rights issues and of not being an “authentic Brexiteer”.

Penny Mordaunt is seen as one of the frontrunners for No 10 (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Penny Mordaunt is seen as one of the frontrunners for No 10 (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

“My perception of Penny is she takes a different view to me when it comes to gender ideology and the position of trans, for example I think she said a trans woman is a woman, I disagree with that,” she told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.

The attack was the latest in a contest which became increasingly vicious on Thursday, with allies of Ms Truss seizing on comments from former Brexit minister Lord Frost about Ms Mordaunt’s competence.

He told TalkTV: “She was my deputy - notionally, more than really - in the Brexit talks last year.

“I felt she did not master the detail that was necessary in the negotiations last year. She wouldn’t always deliver tough messages to the European Union when that was necessary.

“She wasn’t fully accountable, she wasn’t always visible. Sometimes I didn’t even know where she was. This became such a problem that, after six months, I had to ask the Prime Minister to move her on and find somebody else to support me.”

Allies of Ms Mordaunt said she had “nothing but respect” for Lord Frost despite his scathing attack on her.

A source in the Mordaunt campaign said: “Penny will always fight for Brexit and always has.”

But the former minister’s remarks were highlighted by the Truss campaign, with Treasury Chief Secretary Simon Clarke saying: “Lord Frost’s warning is a really serious one. Conservatives - and far more importantly our country - need a leader who is tested and ready.”

Mr Clarke told Sky News: “It is telling, I think, where current members of the Government are placing their support.

“That is reflected in a number of very senior ministers’ decisions about who to support in this race - they are not backing Ms Mordaunt.”

Former cabinet minister David Davis, a supporter of Ms Mordaunt, criticised the “black ops” being directed at her.

“I wouldn’t describe it as friendly fire,” he said. “It’s absolutely clockwork - you get to the point that somebody gets ahead and looks to be the real challenger and then the black op starts, the incoming fire starts.”

Channel 4 said all five candidates have confirmed they will take part in its debate on Friday night, with further televised clashes scheduled for Sunday and Tuesday.

The next round of voting is due on Monday, with subsequent rounds if required until two candidates are left, who will then battle it out over the summer to win the support of Conservative members. Their choice of the next prime minister will be announced on September 5.

Boris Johnson will then formally tender his resignation to the Queen to make way for his successor the following day.

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