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Liz Truss turns up the heat in UK leadership battle

The rhetoric is ramping up as Britain’s Conservative MPs vote to choose their next leader to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

July 14, 2022
By David Hughes, Gavin Cordon and Dominic McGrath
14 July 2022

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss stressed her Conservative credentials and Cabinet experience as the Tory leadership contest became increasingly bitter on Thursday.

Truss was hoping to see off one of her rivals, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, who is under fire from allies of Truss after a surge of support.

Mordaunt came second in the first round of voting on Wednesday, pushing Truss into third place.

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak claimed the top spot but the battle to reach the final stage of the contest — which will see the two candidates chosen by MPs face a vote of the membership — is far from over.

Mordaunt’s strong performance saw her claim 67 votes, 17 more than Truss, with Sunak picking up the support of 88 MPs.

Strong opinion polling also buoyed Mordaunt’s campaign, pushing her into the status of bookmakers’ favourite to become the next Tory leader and UK prime minister.

But supporters of Truss seized on a scathing attack on Mordaunt from former Brexit minister Lord Frost.

Penny Mordaunt is polling well in the Tory leadership tussle. (PA)

He told TalkTV: “I am quite surprised at where she is in this leadership race. She was my deputy — notionally, more than really — in the Brexit talks last year.

“I felt she did not master the detail that was necessary in the negotiations last year. She wouldn’t always deliver tough messages to the European Union when that was necessary.

“She wasn’t fully accountable, she wasn’t always visible. Sometimes I didn’t even know where she was. This became such a problem that, after six months, I had to ask the Prime Minister to move her on and find somebody else to support me.”

The remarks were seized on by the Truss campaign, with Treasury Chief Secretary Simon Clarke saying: “Lord Frost’s warning is a really serious one. Conservatives — and far more importantly our country — need a leader who is tested and ready.”

Truss herself refused to be drawn into a war of words with the Mordaunt camp, telling her campaign launch: “The Conservative race shows what a broad range of talents we have in the Conservative Party. And we didn’t get there through identity politics.”

The Foreign Secretary also faced tough questions about whether her backing from Boris Johnson loyalists could prove fatal to her ambitions to succeed him as Prime Minister.

“I am a loyal person. I am loyal to Boris Johnson. I supported our Prime Minister’s aspirations and I want to deliver the promise of the 2019 manifesto,” she said on Thursday morning, to cheers from her campaign team.

Meanwhile, Sunak insisted his wealth and background in international finance does not bar him from understanding the plight of hard-pressed households.

Rishi Sunak at the launch of his campaign. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t judge people by their bank accounts, I judge them by their character, and I think people can judge me by my actions over the past couple of years.

“Whenever I have needed to step in to support people I have, and furlough is a fantastic example of that.

“But what I would say as a Conservative is I believe in hard work and aspiration and that’s my story, and if I’m prime minister then I’ll be making the case for that with vigour.”

He defended his economic plan, which would not involve the immediate tax cuts promised by his rivals.

“I think our number one economic priority is to tackle inflation and not make it worse,” he told Today.

“I will get taxes down in this Parliament, but I’m going to do so responsibly.

“Because I don’t cut taxes to win elections, I win elections to cut taxes, and I’m convinced that I’m the best person to beat Keir Starmer and the Labour Party at the next election.”

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