Tory leadership candidates will be reduced to just four on Monday when MPs cast their ballots in the third round of the contest to find a successor to Boris Johnson.
The remaining candidates were embroiled in a series of heated exchanges in the latest TV debate – staged by ITV – on Sunday night, as the battle for a spot in the party members’ runoff grew increasingly bitter.
Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who led the first two ballots, clashed with International Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Secretary of State Liz Truss over the economy.
And former Equality Ministers Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat – who finished fourth and fifth respectively in the last ballot and are struggling to avoid exit – have clashed over who has the record and experience to become Prime Minister.
Ms Truss is hoping to get votes from Attorney General Suella Braverman, who endorsed her candidacy after being eliminated in the last round.
Although she voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, the Foreign Secretary has the backing of many Brexiteers, while Ms Braverman is a long-time supporter of leaving the EU.
Unless a significant proportion of the 27 MPs who voted for Ms Braverman last time around now switch to her, Ms Truss’ hopes of overtaking Ms Mordaunt in second place could be slim.
The foreign minister certainly opened the debate in a pugnacious mood, attacking Mr Sunak for raising taxes to the highest level in 70 years, thereby stalling the economic recovery.
The former Chancellor hit back, accusing her of selling “some free economy,” adding that “she’s not conservative. It’s socialism.”
He later asked her specifically what she regretted most – being Remainer or Lib Dem.
Mr Sunak also tangled with Ms Mordaunt, saying her plan to relax tax rules and “put daily bills on the country’s credit card” was “not just wrong, it’s dangerous”.
“Not even Jeremy Corbyn went that far,” he added.
There was also more bad blood between Ms Mordaunt and Ms Badenoch over the Trade Secretary’s views on identity politics and transgender issues.
In the first debate, Ms Badenoch accused her of promoting a policy of self-identification for trans people who wanted to legally change their gender – which Mr Mordaunt firmly denied.
Following further claims in the press over the weekend, Ms Mordaunt said: “I know why this is being done, but I would say that any attempts to portray me as an out-of-contact person will fail.”
Ms Badenoch repeatedly tried to interrupt, saying: “Penny, I was only telling the truth. I’m telling the truth.”
Despite only finishing fourth in the last ballot, there are signs Ms Badenoch is finding support among Tory activists and her supporters hope this will persuade more MPs to vote for her, giving her a chance to do it to create the last two.
Ms Badenoch hit back at Mr Tugendhat – the only candidate who was not a minister – when he suggested those who had served under Mr Johnson had “given credibility to the chaos” and would find it more difficult to defeat Labor in a general election .
Ms Badenoch said she was “ashamed of nothing we’ve done” in government and that serving as a minister required difficult decisions.
“Tom has never done this before. It’s very easy for him to criticize what we did, but we were out there on the front lines and made the case,” she said.
Mr. Tugendhat replied that as a former army officer he had been on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq and led “in the dispute against Putin and China”.
Despite all the spats, there was a remarkable moment of unity. When presenter Julie Etchingham asked them to raise their hands if they were willing to give Mr Johnson a seat in their cabinet, neither did.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/britain/tory-leadership-hopefuls-to-be-cut-to-four-as-mps-vote-in-third-round-of-contest-to-find-boris-johnson-successor-41847321.html Tory lead race: Hopefuls reduced to four as MPs vote in third round of competition to find Boris Johnson’s successor