Downing Street has denied running an anti-Rishi Sunak smear campaign as Boris Johnson’s allies singled out the former chancellor for criticism in an increasingly bitter leadership contest.
The caretaker Prime Minister’s press secretary insisted on Wednesday that Mr Johnson is “staying neutral” despite his remaining loyalists throwing their support behind Liz Truss.
Mr Sunak, who currently commands the most public declaration of support from Tory MPs, faced claims from the Foreign Secretary’s supporters of implementing “economically damaging” policies.
They have also attacked his campaign with claims it has engaged in “dirty tricks” to manipulate the Tory leadership race that will select the next prime minister.
Asked if No 10 is involved in a “stop Sunak” operation as the first round of voting loomed on Wednesday, Mr Johnson’s press secretary said: “No.”
She declined to say whether Downing Street remains supportive of the former chancellor, whose resignation helped end Mr Johnson’s grip on No 10.
The press secretary said she did not know whether Mr Johnson discussed backing Ms Truss with Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg before they made their public declaration in Downing Street.
“He’s staying neutral in this contest,” the spokeswoman said.
Mr Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, and Ms Dorries, the Culture Secretary, came out in support of Ms Truss moments after leaving a Cabinet meeting with Mr Johnson.
On Wednesday, Mr Rees-Mogg went on to argue that the Foreign Secretary is “fiscally on the right side of the argument”, unlike Mr Sunak.
He told Sky News that Ms Truss “opposed the endless tax rises of the former chancellor, which I think have been economically damaging, I also was opposed to (them) in Cabinet”.
He added: “I think that’s important, that you have somebody who’s fiscally on the right side of the argument, who doesn’t believe that higher taxation is the right answer to every question.”
He also said Ms Truss – who voted Remain in the 2016 European Union referendum – is more willing to take advantage of Brexit than Leave-voting Mr Sunak.
Mr Rees-Mogg claimed she is more “supportive about getting rid of the supremacy of EU law, and having a sunset on EU law” than Mr Sunak’s Treasury.
“I think you have to judge people by what they do currently,” he said.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who abandoned his own leadership bid to back Mr Sunak, denied claims from Ms Dorries that the campaign has engaged in dirty tricks.
Ms Dorries accused the former chancellor’s team of using the “dark arts” following claims they tried to “syphon off” votes to ensure Jeremy Hunt cleared the threshold to enter the contest because they believed Mr Sunak would beat him in a run-off vote of party members.
Mr Shapps said: “Simply, in this case it just didn’t happen. Jeremy Hunt himself has said everybody on his nomination paper is somebody who is very close to his campaign. So even he has rubbished it.”
Mr Shapps defended Mr Sunak’s economic stance, saying he is “clearly a guy who is fiscally conservative, wants to get the debt and deficit down, who wants to get the debt falling as a proportion of the overall economy – the idea that this is a socialist is clearly not true”.
Meanwhile, trade minister Penny Mordaunt officially launched her campaign by telling colleagues who had been fearful of losing their seats under Mr Johnson’s leadership that she is their “best shot” at winning the next election.
“I’m the candidate that Labour fear the most – and they’re right to,” she told Conservatives at Westminster’s Cinnamon Club.
Seen as one of the frontrunners in the race, Ms Mordaunt declined to describe Mr Johnson as a good Prime Minister, instead thanking him for delivering Brexit.
Ms Mordaunt insisted she is “very different” from her would-be predecessor but indicated she would not call an early general election to win her own mandate if she entered No 10.
The naval reservist and former defence secretary pledged to return to traditional Conservative values of “low tax, small state and personal responsibility”.
She said she stands by the Conservative manifesto commitment to meet the Nato target for defence spending of 2% of GDP and increase it by 0.5% above inflation every year.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay became the latest big-name backer for Mr Sunak, saying “he has all the right attributes to take our country forward”.
Mr Sunak used a Daily Telegraph interview to claim his economic vision amounts to “common-sense Thatcherism”.
He insisted he would take a more responsible approach to tax cuts.
“We will cut taxes and we will do it responsibly,” he said. “That’s my economic approach. I would describe it as common sense Thatcherism. I believe that’s what she would have done.”
The newspaper also reported that Mr Sunak indicated he would not lift the ban on new grammar schools, nor the hunting ban.
According to the Telegraph, Mr Sunak also declined to back an increase in defence spending.
Former Army officer Tom Tugendhat, who has pledged to boost defence spending, took aim at his leadership rival, telling reporters: “We will never put the safety of our country in doubt because of bean counters and spreadsheets.
“Security always comes before spreadsheets.”
Mr Sunak, Ms Truss, Mr Tugendhat, Kemi Badenoch, Ms Mordaunt, Mr Hunt, Nadhim Zahawi and Suella Braverman will all be on the ballot as MPs begin the process of voting to select the final two candidates to be the next prime minister.
Anyone who fails to get 30 votes on Wednesday afternoon will be eliminated from the contest, with the last-placed candidate losing their place even if they get above that threshold.
Chancellor Mr Zahawi was questioned about his plans to cut taxes, denying he is relying on a “magic money tree” to fund them.
He has pledged to reduce basic rate income tax by 1p to 19p in 2023 and then again to 18p in 2024.
He has also promised to scrap a planned increase in corporation tax and remove VAT and green levies from energy bills for two years.
“This is a fully costed plan,” Mr Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “You will see I demonstrated in every job I’ve had that I deliver, whether it’s vaccines, or the Department of Education.
“I will do the same thing: I will evidence it and you will see it and I will come on your programme and show it to you if I am prime minister.”
He acknowledged Mr Sunak is the frontrunner in the leadership race, but insisted he could still make up ground on his rival.
He told Sky News: “Colleagues will be making their minds up… a lot of undeclared colleagues remain. Rishi out in the lead, no doubt. He is a very talented man, he would make a great prime minister.
“But I think I can deliver. I am the man who has a track record of operational competence. I have the track record of delivering the (Covid) vaccine.”
The final two candidates chosen by Tory MPs will spend the summer battling it out to win the support of Conservative members, with their choice of the next prime minister being unveiled on September 5.
Mr Johnson would formally tender his resignation to the Queen the following day to make way for his successor, his official spokesman confirmed.