The campaign teams of the remaining Tory leadership contenders have been assessing the impact of the first TV debate which saw Penny Mordaunt come under fire over her plans for tax cuts and her record on transgender issues.
Amid a series of bruising exchanges, the international trade minister said the attacks by her rivals showed she was the candidate to beat in the race to succeed Boris Johnson.
“I take it as a big fat compliment that no-one wants to run against me,” she said after finishing an unexpectedly strong second in the first two rounds of voting by MPs.
One snap poll of viewers following the debate suggested Tom Tugendhat – who trailed in fifth place in the last ballot – came out on top on the night, with 36% saying he had been the strongest performer.
Mr Tugendhat drew the first applause from the Channel 4 studio audience when he was the only candiate to answer “no” when asked if Boris Johnson was an honest man.
He also clashed with Mr Sunak over the latter’s decision to raise national insurance contributions to fund the NHS when he was chancellor.
“To be fair to you Rishi, we had a long conversation about it. You set out your position and I asked why on earth it was necessary and you told me because the boss wanted it,” he said to more applause.
Afterwards, Mr Sunak’s team claimed he had “unambiguously won” the debate, while Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is backing Ms Truss, insisted the Foreign Secretary had put in an “excellent performance”.
In the first flashpoint of the evening, Ms Truss joined Kemi Badenoch in accusing Ms Mordaunt of pursuing a policy of gender self-identification when she had responsibility for equalities – something she strongly denied.
Ms Badenoch said she found her denial “difficult” to accept, as that was the policy she found in place when she became equalities minister in 2020.
“So, I don’t understand how that would have changed unless someone else did it in between,” Ms Badenoch said.
“I didn’t work with Penny, but my understanding was that the previous minister who had done the role had wanted self-ID, and that was something that I reversed with Liz.”
Ms Mordaunt retorted, saying: “That is not correct and this will all be on record in government.”
Her campaign team later pointing to comments by Jayne Ozanne, a former government adviser on LGBT issues, who said Ms Mordaunt was “speaking truth” and accusing Ms Truss and Ms Badenoch of “spinning facts”.
Ms Mordaunt then came under fire from Mr Sunak after she said her economic platform was not based on “tax and spend” but on “growth and competition”.
The former chancellor said the campaign promises she had made to cut VAT on fuel and raise income tax thresholds would cost £15 billion.
“Even the pledges you’ve made are double-digit billion-pound promises,” he told her.
“The best way to help everyone, the best way to make sure that they have money in their pocket, is to get a grip of inflation.”
Ms Mordaunt replied: “Next April we are going to be one of the most uncompetitive nations in terms of our tax competitiveness. That cannot be allowed to happen.”
Mr Sunak, who topped the first two polls, also attacked Ms Truss – who is also promising tax cuts – after she pinned the blame for rising inflation on the Bank of England.
“I don’t think the responsible thing to do right now is launch into some unfunded spree of borrowing and more debt, that will just make inflation worse, it will make the problem longer,” he said.
“Borrowing your way out of inflation isn’t a plan, it’s a fairytale.”
Ms Truss responded: “I think it is wrong to put taxes up.”