‘Grubbiest campaign’: how Tory race was defined by smears and dirty tricks | Conservative leadership

At first the candidates kept coming. A few hours after Boris Johnson resigned, Tom Tugendhat and Suella Braverman became the earliest contenders to declare, with the former promising, for the first of many times, “a clean start”. But the ensuing battle, in the soaring summer heat, was anything but.

Eleven people declared at first, including bafflingly Rehman Chishti, who had been a junior foreign office minister for less than a week. He pulled out because he had no supporters as nominations closed. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, and former health secretary Sajid Javid also crashed out at the first hurdle, as neither could get 20 MPs to nominate them.

It was a surprise in Javid’s case. The man whose resignation had triggered Johnson’s departure, had already announced he would scrap the recent 1.25% national insurance rise – only for several other sources to insist he had argued in government for it to be 2%.

Traditional left-right distinctions in the party seemed not to matter when Jeremy Hunt, a past runner-up and a Tory wet, announced that Brexiter Esther McVey would be his deputy. But he was thrown out in the first round of voting, as was Nadhim Zahawi, who had become chancellor a week earlier, only to campaign for Johnson to resign within a day or two of taking the office.

Zahawi had already denounced personal attacks on him in a statement: he had not been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, he said, and he had not benefited from an offshore trust. “It’s very sad that such smears should be circulated,” he added, although it was not enough to prevent him coming second to last with 25 votes to Hunt’s 18 – both below the threshold of 30 required to proceed.

By now, the contest was moving at the pace of a Japanese game show or perhaps a British one, as former Splash contender Penny Mordaunt, a junior trade minister and a former defence secretary, became the most talked about candidate after she came an impressive second on 67 votes behind race leader Rishi Sunak on 88 and an unexpectedly underperforming Liz Truss on 50.

Talk swirled in Westminster that Tory MPs were either “anybody but Rishi” or “anybody but Liz” and Mordaunt appeared to be benefiting with her leadership campaign that launched with the curious slogan it was “less about the leader and a lot more about the ship”. A Conservative Home poll of party members also put Mordaunt top of the popularity list, suggesting she could win.

A panicked right of the party was struggling to find a standard bearer. Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg backed Liz Truss, with the latter attacking Sunak as a high tax chancellor. Braverman, heavily backed by key Brexiters such as Steve Baker, refused to drop out, with one ally sending a venn diagram to a journalist, arguing that unlike Truss, the attorney general was “strong on Brexit”. Braverman, though, was next out as the contest headed to the TV studios and the weekend.

The eight Conservative leader candidates (from the left clockwise): Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak, Kemi Badenoch, Nadhim Zahawi, Suella Braverman, Liz Truss, Tom Tugendhat and Jeremy Hunt
The eight Conservative leader candidates (from the left clockwise): Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak, Kemi Badenoch, Nadhim Zahawi, Suella Braverman, Liz Truss, Tom Tugendhat and Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images

Tugendhat, the outspoken foreign affairs committee chair with no government experience, performed strongly in debate on Channel 4 on the Friday night. He won applause from the studio audience when he declared he was the only candidate who didn’t vote for the national insurance rise “and now it seems everyone else agrees with me”.

It was the line of an opposition politician and would never be enough for the governing party; he was eliminated the following Monday.

But the personal attacks reached an extraordinary level on Sunday night during a no-holds-barred ITV debate, where each contender was allowed to pose a question to one other. Sunak asked Truss: “You’ve been both a Liberal Democrat and a remainer. I’m just wondering which one of those you regretted most?” Truss had earlier accused Sunak of “raising taxes to the highest level in 70 years”.

Labour insiders were stunned by the ITV debate as they watched it unfold, and the ammunition it had handed to them. A minute-long attack ad prepared by the opposition, simply featuring quote after quote from the contenders in the debate, has attracted more than 3m views online. The damage had already been done by the time Sunak and Truss pulled out of a planned Sky News debate on Tuesday.

Such was the Conservative party’s desire for something new after 12 years in government that Kemi Badenoch, a little-known junior minister, was running strongly. As a candidate eager to fight on culture war issues, it was not surprising she targeted Mordaunt over the issue of trans rights.

Last weekend, Badenoch accused her rival of failing to understand that she was supporting changes to gender recognition policy that could have led to removing medical requirements before transitioning is legally recognised. “I’m not going to call her a liar,” Badenoch said in an interview, none too subtly, although Mordaunt insisted that she had never supported self-identification even if her rivals said otherwise.

Badenoch, though, was next to go on Monday, leaving just three. Now Mordaunt was in trouble. The trade minister had come under repeated personal attack, from the Truss-supporting Daily Mail, and most publicly from her boss, trade secretary Anne Marie-Trevelyan, who accused Mordaunt of being a part-time minister, so focused on a future leadership campaign that colleagues regularly “picked up the pieces”.

By then, Westminster had concluded that it was Truss who had the late momentum, with Mordaunt painted on the left on social issues. As the heat began finally to subside, there was little surprise when it emerged that the foreign secretary had joined Sunak in the final two, clambering to 113 votes – eight ahead of Mordaunt.

It was, former Brexit secretary David Davis said, the “grubbiest campaign” he had ever seen. The veteran MP, a disappointed Mordaunt supporter, added: “The truth is we are selecting the next prime minister of the United Kingdom, that ought to be done on rationality and democracy, not dirty tricks.”

But, as the contest moves to the Conservative membership, will voters forget a cluster of candidates so eager to trash the government’s record and each other?

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