UK trade minister Penny Mordaunt has launched a scathing attack on her rivals for the Conservative leadership, as Tory MPs prepares for Wednesday’s final round of voting to narrow the contest to a shortlist of two.
Mordaunt’s campaign claimed that foreign secretary Liz Truss could not win a general election and that if she became prime minister Tory MPs risked losing their seats.
Former chancellor Rishi Sunak is widely expected to make the final shortlist when the result of a fifth round of voting by Tory MPs is announced at 4pm on Wednesday.
Sunak won 118 votes on Tuesdayjust two short of the 120 needed to be certain of making the run-off, but there is a fierce fight for the second slot on the final ballot paper.
Mordaunt secured 92 votes on Tuesday, just six votes ahead of Truss on 86. Truss believes she has momentum and can overtake her rival in the final round of voting.
After Wednesday’s vote, about 150,000 Conservative will vote on which of the two candidates they want to be their party leader and prime minister, with a result declared on September 5.
In a statement from Mordaunt’s camp, a campaign official said the trade minister represented “change” — unlike Sunak and Truss she did not serve in Boris Johnson’s cabinet — and a “fresh start”.
Mordaunt has claimed to be running a clean campaign, but as the final vote approached, the gloves came off. “Liz Truss will not be able to win a general election and would put MPs’ seats at risk,” a Mordaunt aide said.
Mordaunt herself retweeted a Daily Telegraph column by Allison Pearson with the headline: “Vote for Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss today and you’ll murder the party you love.” Mordaunt later deleted the tweet.
One Truss campaign insider said: “Murder the party? Seriously? Liz has a bold economic plan to tackle the cost of living — and more experience, credibility and heft on that main issue of the day.”
Mordaunt’s attempt to fight off Truss received a boost when she received the backing of Damian Green, head of the moderate One Nation group of Conservative MPs.
Green, de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May, said he had thought long and hard before backing Mordaunt. “She offers a fresh start and a chance to unify the party and deliver for the country,” he said.
Much depends on how the 59 supporters of Kemi Badenoch, who was eliminated from the contest on Tuesday, split in the final round of voting. Truss hopes that many will back her and has called for the Tory right to “unite” behind her candidacy.
Some Conservative MPs suggest that Sunak, who looks assured of reaching the head-to-head stage of the contest, could “lend” supporters to the candidate he would most like to face in the final stage of the contest.
But polls suggest both Mordaunt and Truss are at present more popular with the membership than Sunak and it is far from clear which candidate would pose a bigger threat to the former chancellor.
Mordaunt would offer a clean break from the Johnson era but is viewed by Sunak’s team as being light on experience and sketchy on economic issues.
Meanwhile Sunak’s supporters maintain that Truss is too divisive a figure to the general public to convince Tory members she could lead the party to a fifth successful election victory.