Rishi Sunak has been accused of setting the UK on course for “a recession” and of “dirty tricks” after cementing his status as the frontrunner to succeed Boris Johnson.
The former chancellor came under fire from both wings of the Conservative party, after securing most nominations in a race for the Tory leadership that descended into vicious backbiting.
Jeremy Hunt claimed Mr Sunak’s refusal to slash taxes had risked an economic slump – while Liz Truss supporters argued the quick contest favoured his “disloyalty” to Mr Johnson, accusing him of a long underground campaign.
The attacks came as eight candidates secured enough nominations to make it through to the first ballot, but former health secretary Sajid Javid suffered a shock knockout. The home secretary Priti Patel also abandoned her attempt to join the race, due to a lack of support.
Aside from Mr Sunak, Mr Hunt and Ms Truss the remaining leadership hopefuls comprise Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat, chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, Kemi Badenoch and attorney general Suella Braverman.
A fierce battle is shaping up to be the candidate of the right of the party, ahead of voting on Wednesday, with foreign secretary Ms Truss competing with the little-known Ms Badenoch and Ms Braverman.
Although Ms Badenoch’s campaign has momentum, some Tory MPs said they are convinced Ms Truss is winning the fight to represent the right, after securing the support of Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
“She says the right things, she has experience where others do not – and she didn’t do for Boris. There are plenty who are sore over that,” one said.
But Tory peer and polling expert Lord Hayward warned the divided right risked missing out on having a candidate when the race is slimmed down to just choices for a final vote by party members.
“I’m not convinced the right will coalesce around one candidate,” he told The Independent. “And there is a risk that they would not get a candidate in the final two.”
Candidates will be ejected from the race if they fail to secure 30 votes for the second round of voting on Thursday, before more votes next week to whittle down the contest to just two hopefuls.
The new prime minister will then be revealed on 5 September, dashing the hopes of many Conservative MPs that Mr Johnson could be forced out of No 10 sooner.
Mr Sunak won the backing of transport secretary Grant Shapps, who dropped out of the contest, and that of deputy prime minister Dominic Raab.
But as the field narroed to eight the former chancellor was immediately accused of “dirty tricks” – strongly denied – to keep Mr Hunt’s campaign alive by “lending” him nominations to stay in the race.
Culture secretary Ms Dorries condemned “a stitch up”, saying: “Team Rishi want the candidate they know they can definitely beat in the final two”.
Mr Hunt then targeted Mr Sunak for his plans to hike corporation tax so that it “will be higher than not just America or Japan, but France and Germany as well”.
“I’m worried that on our current trajectory, we’re heading into recession, and we’ll be there for too long,” Mr Hunt told LBC Radio, adding: “I was very worried when he announced his budget.”
Mr Sunak is building his campaign on a refusal to promise unaffordable immediate tax cuts – while his rivals have all made extravagant tax-slashing pledges condemned by economists.
Mr Rees-Mogg claimed the rules of the race favoured the former chancellor, claiming: “Those who have been disloyal to the PM have had plenty of time to set up their campaigns.
“Those who have undermined the PM, sometimes by actually running – dare I say it – not a very successful economic policy, have had six months or more where they have been cogitating, mulling, considering their next steps.”
Earlier, John Major attacked leadership contenders who stuck by and “cheered on” Mr Johnson even has he was engulfed by repeated scandals.
And No 10 blocked an attempt by Labour to stage a vote to force Mr Johnson out of power immediately – a move branded an ‘abuse of power’.