The Tory leadership contest shifted further to the right tonight as Tom Tugendhat was eliminated.
Four candidates for Britain’s next Prime Minister remain after the former Army officer, widely regarded as the most moderate of those hoping to seize the Tory crown, received 31 votes from MPs.
Ms Mordaunt dropped one vote since the last ballot while Ms Truss gained seven – more than her rival, but less than many expected after right-winger Suella Braverman dropped out and backed Ms Truss.
It comes after right-wingers repeatedly attacked Ms Mordant. She accused her rivals of “toxic smears” after critics questioned her honesty over her stance on trans rights.
Mordaunt supporter George Freeman told Sky News: “After the three days of pounding she’s had in the media I’m delighted she’s held second place. Nobody has been attacked so savagely in the last few days in the Tory press as Penny Mordaunt.”
Despite her slipping back, Mr Freeman predicted she would pick up ‘One Nation’ Tory supporters of Tom Tugendhat.
Mr Tugendhat said: “I want to thank my team, colleagues and, most of all, the British people for their support. I have been overwhelmed by the response we have received across the country. People are ready for a clean start and our party must deliver on it and put trust back into politics.”
The candidates will then be knocked down to three at 3pm tomorrow.
Frontrunners Ms Truss, Ms Mordaunt and Mr Sunak were expected to face a ferocious three-way battle to make it to the final two at 4pm on Wednesday. Around 180,000 Tory members will vote and the winner will be announced on September 5.
But surprise success Kemi Badenoch, who has run on an anti-‘woke’ campaign, is snapping at their heels – gaining nine extra backers and now just 13 behind the Foreign Secretary.
It came as Tory MPs warned the contest to take over from Boris Johnson is “ripping the party apart” and could damage their chances at the next election.
Ex-Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss pulled out of tomorrow night’s TV debate amid fears they are inflicting serious harm on the Tories’ reputation.
Sky News confirmed it was cancelling the live hustings after all the Tory candidates spent the previous two debates tearing each other to shreds.
Tory MPs fear that further angry ‘blue on blue’ attacks will make the Government look even more out of touch when the public is struggling with the heatwave and the cost of living.
Mr Tugendhat was the only candidate to hold a lengthy press conference and the first to rule out leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, followed shortly by Penny Mordaunt.
He had also been the only candidate to say benefit levels should be increased, by cutting the taper rate in Universal Credit.
The wannabe PMs were tonight deep in behind the scenes horse-trading as Tory MPs whose favourites have already been knocked out decide who to back.
But the race has descended into bitterness as the rivals clashed in television debates over the weekend.
Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan tonight accused Ms Mordaunt of being distracted from her government work by leadership plotting.
She told Sky News: “In the last few months there have been a number of times when Penny has not been able to pick up what would be her departmental duties.”
Ms Truss criticised Mr Sunak in the ITV debate on Sunday for putting up taxes to their highest level in 70 years, choking off economic recovery in the process.
The former chancellor hit back accusing her of peddling “something-for-nothing economics”, adding that “isn’t Conservative. It’s socialism”.
He later asked her pointedly which she regretted most – having been a Remainer or a Lib Dem. In response, she attacked his elite schooling.
Sources told the Times that at the end of Friday’s vitriolic leadership debate on Channel 4, Mr Sunak turned to her and asked: “Why are we doing this?”
Both campaigns have since privately questioned the point of the debates among MPs concerns about where they will leave the party in the long-term.
One Tory MP said: “The division, smears and personal attacks this weekend have been disgraceful. Nothing will kill our party more than blue on blue”.
Another told colleagues: “We have an 80-seat majority and have spent time infighting and bringing down the party and are now fighting publicly.
“It’s shameful. I can’t believe this is happening”.
Another MP told ITV News: “It’s hard to see how people partner up when they go so hard at each other”.
The Sunak campaign source said: “We are very happy to do more debates if we are lucky enough to get to the next stage, including Sky News.”
A Team Truss source added: “It is not the right time to be doing more debates when this part of the contest only has 358 voters.”
But the attacks on other candidates did not stop.
Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was backing Mr Tugendhat, claimed Ms Mordaunt missed key meetings in her role as a junior minister.
Tory leadership election 2022
“Understandably, perhaps, now it’s clear, Penny has for the last few months spent some of her time focused on preparing her leadership campaign,” she told LBC Radio:
“There have been a number of times when she hasn’t been available, which would have been useful, and other ministers have picked up the pieces.”
Meanwhile, former Treasury minister Lord Agnew, who is backing Ms Badenoch, has said he was “very surprised” that Mr Sunak claimed Covid fraud was lower than anticipated.
It follows Ms Badenoch’s claims the ex-Chancellor “dismissed” concerns over Covid loan fraud which cost taxpayers more than £17billion.
The Tory peer, who quit over the Government’s handling of the massive fraud, claimed Mr Sunak’s Covid fraud estimates were a “fairytale”.