Tory leadership race: Rishi Sunak seizes momentum as backbencher Tom Tugendhat eliminated

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak has seized critical momentum in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister as Tom Tugendhat was officially eliminated from the Tory leadership race.

Mr Sunak built on his lead by adding 14 new supporters as his campaign team claimed a victory for the frontrunner’s “consistent and sensible message”, just hours after a leadership debate due to be televised by Sky News was cancelled amid bitter infighting amongst the leading contenders.

On one of the hottest days in British history, the race to replace Boris Johnson intensified as Penny Mordaunt maintained second place by fending off a challenge by Liz Truss, receiving 82 votes to the foreign secretary’s 71 in the third ballot of Tory MPs.

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All eyes will already turn to the next ballot on Tuesday, with Kemi Badenoch now the candidate with the lowest share of support after received 58 votes as backbencher Mr Tugendhat’s tally of 31 votes saw him eliminated.

But Mr Sunak, who received 115 votes, appears all but assured of achieving the 120 votes required to guarantee a place in the final two.

A source for Mr Sunak’s campaign described the leadership ballot as a “good result”.

“MPs are recognising that Rishi has the best experience and plans to deal with the current economic situation,” the spokesperson said. “Rishi will rebuild our economy by gripping inflation and getting our economy growing quickly again.”

Despite being endorsed by the recently eliminated Suella Braverman, Ms Truss only gained seven supporters, raising huge questions for her levels of support.

Tom Tugendhat was eliminated on Monday evening.

The Attorney General had 27 supporters when she was ousted, but 20 of those did not follow her endorsement and failed to back the foreign secretary.

Ms Mordaunt lost one supporter, and now the campaigners are expected to battle for Ms Badenoch’s supporters in the event of her imminent elimination from the contest.

After the ballot, she tweeted: “My vote is steady and I’m grateful to my colleagues for all their support and thrilled to be in second place once more.

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“MPs know that I’m a strong candidate, running a truly clean campaign and putting forward a positive vision for the party and our country.”

Speaking after being ousted, former soldier Mr Tugendhat said he would listen to what other candidates have to say before deciding who to support.

In a video posted to Twitter, Mr Tugendhat said: “That is the end of the road for me in this race, but look, it has been an amazing run. I’m incredibly proud of the team, I’m incredibly grateful to all the supporters who have been with me at some – if not all – stages of the race we fought for a clean start because we know that that’s what the country is crying out for.

“We’ve seen that in the response to the two debates, we’ve seen that in the engagement we’ve had from people.

“Now I’m going to be with you, of course, over the next two years, fighting in the council elections and then fighting again in the general election and then long into the future, because we need to make sure that our party, the Conservative Party, is able to deliver a clean start for the country and for ourselves.

“But please, I’m not going to be talking about any candidates at the moment, I’ll listen to what they have to say and I’ll be making my judgment later.”

The ballot came after another fraught day of campaigning in the Tory Party leadership contest, with Ms Mordaunt accused of missing ministerial meetings because she was plotting her Tory leadership bid.

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But former minister Harriet Baldwin, an ally of Ms Mordaunt, said: “Having worked with Penny Mordaunt for a number of years, I can confirm this is not true”.

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Candidates are believed to be worried the race is damaging the party. The concerns prompted Mr Sunak and Ms Truss to confirm they did not want to take part in a Sky News debate planned for Tuesday, leading the broadcaster to cancel the show.

“Conservative MPs are said to be concerned about the damage the debates are doing to the image of the Conservative Party, exposing disagreements and splits within the party,” a Sky statement said.

A series of votes among Tory MPs this week will narrow the field down to a final two, who will then face a summer of campaigning for the support of party members in a final vote.

It came on a day that saw the Prime Minister accused of giving a “fantasy tour” of the the UK and his time in office, and accused of leaving a legacy of “poverty, inequality and insecurity”.

Mr Johnson ran through what he perceived to be his greatest hits in office as he sought to bat away calls for him to resign immediately rather than wait until the end of the Conservative Party leadership contest on September 5.

Mr Johnson was facing a vote of no-confidence he called in his own Government, despite accusing Labour of organising it.

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The soon-to-be former Prime Minister spoke at length about Brexit, support for Ukraine and his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic amid furious heckling from the Opposition benches.

In a hint at what is to come, Mr Johnson also told MPs he would have “more to say” about the events surrounding his downfall.

Defending his own record, Mr Johnson hailed his 2019 general election success and celebrated his Brexit record, telling MPs: “We got Brexit done and though the rejoiners and the revengers were left plotting and planning and biding their time – and I’ll have more to say about the events of the last few weeks and months in due course – we delivered on every single one of our promises.”

The Prime Minister turned to the Covid-19 pandemic, claiming: “A pandemic that was global, whose origins we do not fully understand, but were nothing to do with the British people, and if anything the result of distant misbehaviour involving bats or pangolins, and whose spread was appallingly difficult to manage, and this Government never gave up through wave after wave.”

Mr Johnson praised the “resilience of the British people” in protecting the NHS, with one Labour MP heard shouting: “You partied in Downing Street.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The delusion is never ending. What a relief for the country that they finally got round to sacking him.

“And in many ways the chaos of the last fortnight is familiar – the third Tory leadership contest in six years, the latest bumper summer for graphic designers and brand managers, the latest parade of pretenders promising unfunded tax cuts.

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“The latest set of ministerial jobs handed out on a wink and a shake in return for a nomination. And TV debates so embarrassing that even the contestants are pulling out.

“Every other year they switch out a failed prime minister.”

After saying the PM had been forced out “in disgrace”, Sir Keir said: “[He has been] judged by his colleagues and peers to be unworthy of his position, and unfit for his office.

“He promoted someone he knew to be a sexual predator … and then denied all knowledge when that inevitably went wrong. He lied to his ministers about what he knew, and allowed them to repeat those lies to the country.

“It’s the same pattern of behaviour that we saw when he and his mates partied through lockdown. Denied it for months, and forced his ministers to repeat those lies until he was found out.”

As he was jeered by MPs later in his speech, Sir Keir said: “They all know it can’t go on. Just read their resignation letters.”

Making an intervention, independent MP and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I’m grateful to the Prime Minister for taking a break from his fantasy tour of this country.”

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Mr Corbyn asked why “14 million people in this country are living in poverty [and] why there are more food banks than there are branches of McDonalds”.

He added: “He has created poverty, inequality and insecurity. That is his legacy.”

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford told the Commons Mr Johnson didn’t deserve another day in office.

He said: “Let’s reflect on a man who should never have been put in office in the first place. A man that simply shouldn’t be here for a minute longer, because he demonstrated no dignity in office, in the highest office in the land.

“He doesn’t deserve another day. Never mind another seven weeks.”

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