Analysis: Penny Mordaunt charge continues as rivals struggle for attack line

Penny Mordaunt is through to the next round, and the candidates who expected this to be easy are at a loss over what to do.

Penny Mordaunt at the launch of her campaign to be Conservative Party leader.
Penny Mordaunt at the launch of her campaign to be Conservative Party leader.

Team Rishi Sunak had expected a coronation, a stroll, with briefings just two days ago he wanted to have a 200 MP lead in the first round.

The former chancellor had pondered resigning for months, with his aspirations for leadership less a worst kept secret and more a running joke.

Approaching the second round and backed by a host of cabinet ministers, Mr Sunak had every reason to think this would sew him up as the successor, and confirm him in the final two.

Instead, the talk is all of Ms Mordaunt, who added on more votes despite coming second, and is now polling as the most popular with Tory members.

And rivals don’t know what to do about it, as far back as last year this was supposed to be Liz Truss vs parliament’s richest MP.

Asked why she was behind Mr Sunak and Ms Mordaunt at her launch event on Thursday, the Foreign Secretary insisted she had been busy defeating Vladimir Putin.

The response speaks to her experience, but her and the other candidates are yet to realise being so closely linked to Boris Johnson isn’t necessarily a good thing.

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So the briefings have begun, in a contest where everyone promises to behave now sees off and on the record sniping from candidates.

Junior minister Simon Clarke claimed it was “telling” that current Cabinet ministers are “not backing” her, in a completely unprovoked attack.

He was joined by former Brexit minister Lord Frost who said she was not up to the job when she was his deputy in talks with the EU.

Both of these comments fundamentally misunderstand that Ms Mordaunt could be a fresh start, a new leader untarnished by defending partygate and Mr Johnson.

In response, a source for the Portsmouth North MP simply thanked him for his work on Brexit.

She is not picking fights or engaging on blue on blue, instead focusing on an actual positive campaign that Tory members are on board with, and a growing number of MPs.

The rival candidates need to show why having experience helps instead of criticising, or they’ll just be backbench MPs with good CVs.

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