TORY leadership candidates will lock horns tonight in the first TV debate that could dramatically flip the contest on its head.
With everything to play for, the final five wannabe PMs will battle live on Channel 4 and make their biggest pitch yet for the top job.
The 7pm match-up risks electrifying an already brutal blue-on-blue race where rival camps are slinging mud at each other.
Rishi Sunak is expected to cruise into the final two after nearly winning the amount of MPs needed to go through.
Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch are fighting tooth and claw to be the main challenger with neither side backing down.
Foreign Secretary Ms Truss in particular is urging Ms Badenoch to fold in behind her campaign so not to split the right-wing vote.
Despite vowing not to “disparage” her fellow candidates, her allies last night launched a brutal briefing against Ms Mordaunt – saying she would be “utterly incompetent” as PM.
Ms Mordaunt – who is now the bookies favourite – this morning said she was refusing to engage in friendly fire on her Tory colleagues.
In key developments:
- Suella Braverman backed Liz Truss after crashing out of the contest
- Brexit Tories rowed about which candidate they should back
- Ms Mordaunt said she would win if she got through to the final two
- Ms Badenoch refused to back down depute pressure to
The potential support of the 27 Tory MPs who supported Ms Braverman — who fell out of the race yesterday — could prove crucial in her bid to overhaul Ms Mordaunt, who currently leads her by 19 votes.
But her Brexit backers are rowing amongst themselves on who they should fall in behind now.
The Sun has seen heated texts between members of the Tory Brexit caucus about whether they should back Ms Truss or Ms Badenoch.
A Truss spokeswoman said: “Now is the time for MPs to unite behind the candidate who will cut taxes, deliver the real economic change we need, continue to deliver the benefits of Brexit and ensure Putin loses in Ukraine.
“Liz Truss has the experience to deliver from day one, grow our economy and support working families and then beat Labour.”
TORY LEADERSHIP RACE – TIMETABLE
WEDNESDAY July 13
– 1.30-3.30pm: Tory MPs voted in person or by proxy in Parliament for their preferred candidate to be the next party leader.
– Around 5pm: The results of the first round were announced by 1922 chair Sir Graham Brady. Both Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt crashed out after failing to reach the 30-vote threshold.
– Straight after: The remaining candidates fielded questions from Tory MPs at the 1922 hustings.
THURSDAY July 14
– Tory MPs voted in the second ballot as the candidate with the fewest votes was eliminated.
FRIDAY July 15
– The remaining candidates go head to head in the first TV debate live on Channel 4 at 7pm.
SUNDAY July 17
– They will then do battle again with a debate on ITV at 7pm.
MONDAY July 18
MONDAY July 18 – The remaining candidates are put before Tory MPs at the third ballot. One more will be eliminated. Sky News will host the third TV debate at 7pm.
TUESDAY July 19 – WEDNESDAY July 20
– Knockout ballots will happen daily until just two candidates are left standing on Wednesday.
FRIDAY July 22
– The final two candidates tour the country trying to win the votes of 100,000 or so ordinary party members who will decide the next PM.
MONDAY September 5
– The results of the vote is announced and Britain’s next PM is revealed
Rishi Sunak topped the latest MPs ballot with 101 votes — leaving him just 19 shy of the magic 120 to win a golden ticket to the final two.
Ms Mordaunt was second with 83 and Ms Truss third with 64.
As the rush for votes heated up, Team Truss dashed to schmooze Ms Braverman’s supporters.
If they manage to hoover them all up, she could leapfrog rival Ms Mourdant and end up in a one-on-one scrap with Mr Sunak for the Tory crown.
The Attorney General had earlier savaged Ms Mourdant over trans rights — heavily hinting she would never back her for leader.
She blasted: “My perception of Penny is she takes a different view to me when it comes to gender ideology and the position of trans, for example, I think she said a trans woman is a woman, I disagree with that.”
Ms Braverman also unexpectedly heaped praise on former Chancellor Mr Sunak, saying: “I think Rishi has had an incredibly difficult job to do navigating the finances through Covid and helping millions of people survive. I think he’s made decisions which have been very, very difficult.”
However, in a later interview, she swiped that Mr Sunak was on the Left of the party.
But it was a bad day for former Army officer Tom Tugendhat, who saw his vote count drop by five. He scraped through to the next round with 32 backers.
Furiously denying he will throw the towel in, his backers said he will end up “the David Cameron of the contest” as voters will fall in love with him when he appears on the live telly debates.
Ms Truss had left her home in a blue dress at 7.30am yesterday, but appeared at her campaign launch at 10am wearing red — and used the platform to outgun her rivals on tax cuts and drive a dump truck over Mr Sunak’s record.
She pledged to reverse his National Insurance and Corporation Tax hikes while also creating “new low-tax and low-regulation zones to attract investment”.
Supporters including Cabinet ministers Kwasi Kwarteng and Therese Coffey cheered as she insisted: “Now is the time to be bold, we cannot have business-as-usual economic management, which has led to low growth for decades.
“I will campaign as a Conservative and I will govern as a Conservative.” Although she voted Remain in 2016, Ms Truss attempted to burnish her born-again Brexit credentials, declaring: “In the face of EU intransigence, I developed the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.”
She also pledged to hike defence spending to three per cent of GDP to “win the fight for freedom at home and across the world”.
And she said: “I stood up to Vladimir Putin by targeting Russia with the toughest sanctions his regime has ever seen.”
In a bid to woo to Tories hell bent on slashing the size of government, she also vowed to take on the civil service blob.
She told a packed air-conditioned room in Westminster: “I don’t give into Whitehall. I don’t give into vested interests. I don’t give into the naysayers.
“I have proved that time and time again by delivering, even when it’s difficult.”
She denied that Mr Johnson’s tacit endorsement was “the kiss of death” and stressed her loyalty to the outgoing Tory leader.
She added: “What we need to do now is deliver, deliver, deliver, and I am the person in this race with the record of delivery.”
THE FINAL 5 – WHO ARE THEY AND WHAT ARE THEY PROMISING?
Key pitch: No tax cuts until inflation under control
The former Chancellor has laid out his stall as the candidate for economic responsibility while rivals go gung-ho on tax cuts.
He has promised to cut taxes only when inflation has been brought under control, warning to do so now would just hike prices higher.
- Cut taxes when inflation is down and public finances are repaired
- Plough on with the planned rise to 25 per cent corporation tax
- Keep the Rwanda immigration policy to cut small boats crossings
- Keep defence spending at current levels with no increase
- Publish a manifesto to protect women’s rights
- Open the door to scrapping the BBC Licence Fee in the future
Key pitch: Pull funding for Mickey Mouse degrees
Rising star Kemi Badenoch has signalled she wants tax cuts but is refusing to enter the “bidding war” among candidates to slash them the most.
Instead she is serving up a platter of red meat policies that are going down a storm with many Tory MPs.
- Cut taxes and rein in spending
- Opposes Net Zero 2050 target
- Open to the withdrawal from the Euro court
- Reduce funding for Mickey Mouse degrees
- Scrap the Online Harms Bill
- Reduce the amount spent on foreign aid
Key pitch: Tax cuts on day one as PM
Liz Truss is also pledging to cut taxes on her first day in office if she wins the contest.
The Foreign Secretary – who is yet to formally launch her campaign – has also vowed to publicly recognise China’s persecution of Uighurs as a genocide.
- Reverse NICs hike and cut taxes from day one
- Reform the Euro court and leave altogether if not possible
- Publicly recognise the genocide in China
- Reduce the size of the state in comparison to the private sector
Key pitch: Halve VAT on fuel immediately
The Trade Minister says she is the candidate that Labour would fear most in a general election.
She has promised to slash taxes and help families by solving the childcare crisis.
- Immediate 50% cut to fuel duty
- Establish a taskforce to address the “paralysis” in the NHS
- Appoint a cabinet minister with responsibility for family policies
- Repeal 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars
Key pitch: Hike defence spending on day one
The Foreign Affairs Committee Chair has painted himself as the “clean slate” candidate for a new and improved low tax, defence focused Tory Party.
He has pledged to slash fuel duty and raise hike up defence spending.
- Spend 3% of GDP on defence
- Establish an Institute of Technology in every major town and city
- Keep the Rwanda deportation policy
- Reverse the NI rise