Analysis: Battle for second place heats up as Tory leadership race enters crucial stage

In the coming days, the candidates vying to replace Boris Johnson will be whittled down from five to just two.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak enjoys the support of the highest number of Tory MPs and seems almost certain to make it into the final stretch.

His campaign was bolstered by a competent performance in Friday’s Channel 4 leadership debate.

The battle for second place is much more interesting.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak. Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

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Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has the backing of Mr Johnson’s allies and there have been calls for the Tory right to unite behind her.

But she was robotic and unconvincing in the first TV debate, and Mr Sunak landed a blow with his dismissal of her economic plans as a “fairy tale”.

Ms Truss had earlier vowed to axe the planned corporation tax hike, reverse the national insurance rise and implement a temporary moratorium on the green energy levy as she made a multibillion-pound pitch for the Tory leadership.

Meanwhile, trade minister Penny Mordaunt emerged as the clear frontrunner among the Tory grassroots, with a snap poll by YouGov finding she topped the list for party members.

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It came as a bit of a surprise given the former defence secretary isn’t exactly a household name.

But her chances could be hit by aggressive attacks from rival camps and an ongoing row over her stance on trans issues.

She claimed during the Channel 4 debate that she had "never been in favour of self-ID", but this has come under scrutiny.

It might seem like a niche subject, but it plays into the wider “culture wars” – and also raises some basic questions around honesty.

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Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat seem unlikely to make it into the final two, but both have made an impact – even if, thanks to Mr Tugendhat, I never want to hear about the army ever again.

In many ways, the Tory leadership race is a bizarre spectacle governed by its own internal logic.

The candidates are pitching to a very specific audience, and the vast majority of those watching the TV debates ultimately have no say in who wins.

But we all have to live with the outcome, and the next few days will prove crucial. Stay tuned.

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