Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are set to miss the third scheduled TV debate in the Conservative leadership race, it emerged on Monday, following a bruising set of exchanges in the first two debates.
A source in Sunak’s campaign said the former chancellor had never committed to participating in the Sky News debate on Tuesday evening, while Truss’s aides said the foreign secretary was “unlikely” to take part if all the other candidates did not.
A Sunak campaign source said: “We are very happy to do more debates if we are lucky enough to get to the next stage, including Sky News.”
The next stage, in which Tory party members choose from a final two candidates, comes after up to three more rounds of voting among the party’s MPs between Monday and Wednesday, to whittle the field down from the current five.
Sunak and Truss have both experienced difficult moments in the first two debates, on Channel 4 on Friday and ITV on Sunday, with Sunak often targeted by other candidates for his role in Boris Johnson’s government and insistence that tax cuts must wait for inflation to be lowered.
Truss has struggled with some of the exchanges and has tended to not fare well in polls of viewers’ reactions.
As well as Truss and Sunak, also still in the race are the trade minister Penny Mordaunt, the backbencher Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badeonch, a former levelling up minister.
Tugendhat is seen as most likely to be eliminated in a third round of Tory MPs’ votes on Monday evening, with Badenoch tipped to follow him on Tuesday.
With Sunak appearing likely to make the final two, who are then voted on by Tory party members, Truss and Mordaunt are fighting it out for the other spot.
In the latest personal attack on Mordaunt, her boss in the international trade department accused her of neglecting her ministerial job to focus on her prime ministerial ambitions.
It came as Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the international trade secretary who has worked with Mordaunt as one of her junior ministers for nearly a year, said other ministers had “picked up the pieces” when Mordaunt was not available.
Mordaunt’s surge to become, at various points in the race, the unexpected bookmakers’ favourite to win has resulted in her facing a series of attacks on her character and record, including the idea she is too socially liberal in areas such as transgender rights.
Speaking to LBC radio on Monday, Trevelyan, who is backing Tugendhat for the leadership, was asked about Mordaunt’s grasp of details, answering: “We all do our jobs in different ways.”
Trevelyan accused her junior minister of preparing for a leadership campaign long before Johnson stepped down 11 days ago.
“Understandably, perhaps, now it’s clear, Penny has for the last few months spent some of her time focused on preparing her leadership campaign, for which I have utmost respect, that’s how this system works,” Trevelyan said.
“There have been a number of times when she hasn’t been available, which would have been useful, and other ministers have picked up the pieces.”
In Sunday evening’s ITV debate between the five remaining candidates, Sunak attacked Mordaunt’s idea of allowing the Treasury to borrow for day-to-day spending, not just investment.
Mordaunt said: “Too many chancellors have had too many fiscal rules that they have then had to ditch because they weren’t able to meet them,” prompting Sunak to reply: “Literally Jeremy Corbyn didn’t think that was the right approach.”
But most of the criticism of her has been more personal, notably over her allegedly liberal views.
The Daily Mail, a strong supporter of Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has particularly targeted Mordaunt. On Monday its front-page headline said that as a minister Mordaunt met the Muslim Council of Britain, despite a government policy of not formally engaging with the group.
July 18, 2022 at 03:30PM Peter Walker Political correspondent