Tory leadership race: Mordaunt tells party to play its greatest hits in duel with Sunak

Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt battle for second place in endorsements from Conservative MPs

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Penny Mordaunt likened herself to a rock star playing the Conservative Party's favourite tunes on Wednesday as she promised to turn the government's focus to core issues such as childcare and the economy after the endless scandal and chaos that brought down Boris Johnson.

Ms Mordaunt, one of eight candidates still standing in the race to be Britain's next prime minister, used her first major speech of the campaign to tell Tory MPs she was the person the opposition "fears the most", hours before they started voting in the first round of balloting.

"Recently, our party has lost its sense of self," said Ms Mordaunt, who is seen as a potential unity candidate after serving quietly as a junior minister under Mr Johnson without being too closely tied to his government or making enemies by rebelling against him.

She said: "If I can compare it to being in the Glastonbury audience, when Paul McCartney was playing his set - we indulged all those new tunes, but what we really wanted was the good old stuff that we all knew the words to: low tax, a small state, personal responsibility."

In other developments:

- Voting ended in the first round of balloting among Tory MPs, with results to be announced later;

- Early favourite Rishi Sunak said his economic policy would amount to “common-sense Thatcherism”;

- His camp denied claims that it was lending votes to less favoured candidates to muddy the contest's waters and give Mr Sunak an easier path to victory;

- Ms Mordaunt received a major boost from polling suggesting she would beat any of her rivals in a final-round vote, including Mr Sunak;

- Former soldier Tom Tugendhat said security should come before “bean counters and spreadsheets” in an apparent swipe at Mr Sunak’s caution on defence spending;

- Foreign Secretary Liz Truss won the backing of two prominent figures on the Tory right, former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith and fervent Brexiteer Mark Francois;

- Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi acknowledged Mr Sunak was the front-runner but said he had a “fully costed” plan to cut taxes.

As Ms Mordaunt and her rivals including Ms sought to establish themselves as the main challenger to front-runner Mr, two candidates made a play to inherit the mantle of 1980s prime minister and conservative icon Margaret Thatcher.

Ms Mordaunt, a naval reservist, said watching as a child when British warships set off for the 1982 Falklands War was the moment that inspired her to serve her country and taught her: "My country stood up to bullies".

Meanwhile, Mr Sunak told the Daily Telegraph in his first campaign interview that his economic policies would amount to "common-sense Thatcherism", after critics accused him of presiding over an era of high taxes and spending.

"We will cut taxes and we will do it responsibly. That's my economic approach," he said. "I would describe it as common-sense Thatcherism. I believe that's what she would have done."

But Truss backer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said some candidates saw Thatcher's name as a "golden ticket" to the leadership, said Mr Sunak's record of raising taxes made him more akin to a left-wing chancellor.

Liz Truss received backing from two prominent figures on the right of the party. Getty

Mr Sunak's resignation from government last week set in motion a mass frontbench mutiny that culminated in Mr Johnson announcing his resignation, triggering the two-month contest to replace him.

Mr Johnson's government announced a confidence vote in itself on Wednesday in a convoluted manoeuvre meant to ensure that he stays in office until a new leader is elected.

The first round of voting among Tory MPs, which was taking place on Wednesday afternoon, requires candidates to win at least 30 votes to progress. If everyone clears that hurdle, the lowest-ranked candidate will be knocked out.

The process will be repeated in successive votes over the coming week until only two remain, at which point the wider Conservative Party membership will be given the final word. A winner will be announced in early September.

As of Wednesday lunchtime, Mr Sunak had 43 MPs openly supporting him, compared to 24 for Ms Mordaunt and 21 for Ms Truss.

But many more have made their preference known in private. Tom Tugendhat, Kemi Badenoch, Nadhim Zahawi, Jeremy Hunt and Suella Braverman all put together the necessary 20 signatures to make the first ballot, despite not having that many public endorsements.

Former health secretary Sajid Javid and long-shot candidate Rehman Chishti dropped out of the race after failing to qualify for the first round, with Mr Chishti finding no known backers other than himself.

Ms Mordaunt joked that she had been "undertaking the parliamentary equivalent of speed dating" in recent days as she lobbied for support at Westminster.

She told colleagues a government led by her would have a "relentless focus" on lowering the cost of living, including by cutting VAT on fuel and raising income tax thresholds in line with inflation.

Her other ideas include creating flexible "childcare budgets" for parents with young children, creating pots of money for MPs to spend in their constituencies, setting up task forces to speed up healthcare and housebuilding, and bringing more private money into plans to "level up" the north of England.

She said she wanted to free up money for the armed forces by handing some of its duties to a civil defence force.

The British public are "capable and responsible people. They expect their government to be too," she said. "They expect us to deliver on both the mandate and the majority they handed us. I can, and we will."

UK Conservatives on the leadership campaign trail - in pictures

'Dirty tricks'

Nadine Dorries, a Cabinet minister and Johnson loyalist, accused Mr Sunak's team of playing "dirty tricks" by donating endorsements to Mr Hunt to keep him in the race.

"Team Rishi want the candidate they know they can definitely beat in the final two and that is Jeremy Hunt," she said.

Grant Shapps, who dropped out of the race and joined the Sunak campaign on Tuesday, denied those allegations and said an attempt to assist Mr Hunt "just didn't happen".

"Jeremy Hunt himself has said everybody on his nomination paper is somebody who is very close to his campaign," Mr Shapps told Sky News. "So even he has rubbished it."

Mr Zahawi said there was "no doubt" Mr Sunak was in the lead but said he could still make up ground on his rival as he touted his own record overseeing Britain's Covid-19 vaccination campaign.

"Rishi is out in the lead, no doubt, he is a very talented man," Mr Zahawi said. "But I think I can deliver. I am the man who has a track record of operational competence."

Conservative leadership candidates - in pictures

Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics jokingly described as a mystic for his near-perfect prediction of a ballot on Mr Johnson's leadership last month, said he would give Mr Sunak a 51-49 chance of victory.

He told The Guardian that Conservative members might judge Mr Sunak the most plausible prime minister and could be less obsessed with tax cuts than many candidates seem to believe they are.

While some candidates have tried to outbid each other with promises to reduce taxes, Mr Sunak's warning against "comforting fairy tales" was taken as a dissenting note, although he later said tax cuts were a matter of "when, not if".

Candidates on the right were given a clearer run after Home Secretary Priti Patel, a hardliner on immigration, said she would not enter the contest.

She made no endorsement in the race, but Cabinet ministers Dominic Raab and Mr Shapps came out for Mr Sunak, while Education Secretary James Cleverly backed Ms Truss.

Updated: July 14, 2022, 4:11 AM