Sky News’ Tory leadership debate audience ‘filled with Rishi Sunak supporters’

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Rishi Sunak is grilled by Kay Burley
Rishi Sunak is grilled by Kay Burley

The Tory leadership debate on Thursday night was stacked with Rishi Sunak supporters, allies of Liz Truss have claimed.

They said the audience for the Sky debate appeared hostile to the Foreign Secretary with one of the harshest critics identified as the former chief of staff to MP Anna Soubry, who quit the Conservative Party over Brexit.

Tom Harding, who previously worked for Ms Soubry, quizzed Ms Truss over her U-turn on regional pay for civil servants, urging her to apologise for the “offensive” policy.

He previously tweeted his support for Mr Sunak even though Sky said the audience comprised undecided Tory members, and appeared previously on the BBC, saying he was only remaining a Conservative to get rid of Boris Johnson.

The former Chancellor was widely judged to have won the debate after a show of hands showed the overwhelming majority of the studio audience was most convinced by his pitch.

An ally of Ms Truss said: “The audience didn’t exactly reflect what we’re seeing in the polling, let’s put it that way. When you have Soubry’s ex chief of staff, it’s clear it wasn’t exactly an audience of typical Tory members.”

The latest major poll of Tory members by YouGov suggests Ms Truss has a more than two-to-one majority over Mr Sunak among party members - at 60 per cent to 26 per cent. The survey, on Tuesday, indicated she had increased her lead from 18 to 34 percentage points.

Challenging Ms Truss over her U-turn on pay - widely regarded as her biggest setback in the campaign - Mr Harding said: “We are having this election because of people’s judgement and trust. Why should we trust your judgement?”

When she maintained that the policy had been misinterpreted and had not been about teachers or nurses, Mr Harding replied that was wrong, adding: “Will you apologise because it was actually quite offensive?”

Within hours, he had been outed as the former chief of staff to Ms Soubry and on Twitter, a former Tory MEP unearthed a video of Mr Harding from BBC Question Time in June where he said: “The only reason I’m a member of the party now is to get rid of Boris Johnson.”

On July 20, Mr Harding publicly declared for Mr Sunak, saying on  Twitter: “If the party votes Truss then we deserve opposition. I’ll be using my vote for Rishi.”

Mr Harding responded to the furore: “It was a simple question - she could have answered and moved on. She didn’t and so the issue carried on.”

He added in another tweet: “And the nutters swoop in with the abuse because they can’t debate substance.”

A third tweet responding to apparent criticism of his previous BBC appearance opened with two emojis crying with laughter and added: “People have too much time on their hands.”

Another apparent critic of Ms Truss in the audience was claimed to be Jill Andrew, a former party candidate who stood against Mr Johnson for his Henley seat in 1997.

A Sky News spokesman said: “Sky News commissioned respected insight company Survation to provide an audience of largely undecided Conservative members, and as always the candidates and their campaigns were kept fully informed of our approach.”

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