Penny Mordaunt missed ministerial meetings because she was plotting her Tory leadership bid, her departmental boss claimed, as senior Conservatives expressed concern about the increasingly bitter race to replace Boris Johnson.
The trade minister’s absence from meetings forced colleagues to pick up the pieces, International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan alleged in a scathing attack on the hopeful leadership.
The Cabinet minister is backing Tom Tugendhat for the Conservative Party leadership, but he is at risk of being eliminated from the contest in the next round of voting later on Monday.
In a sign of the concern about the way the leadership race is being conducted, campaign frontrunner Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss confirmed they did not want to take part in a Sky News debate planned for Tuesday – prompting the broadcaster to cancel the show.
“Conservative MPs are said to be concerned about the damage the debates are doing to the image of the Conservative Party, exposing disagreements and splits within the party,” a Sky statement said.
Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer said he is “astonished” by candidates withdrawing from the debate, arguing that it demonstrates a lack of “confidence”.
He told reporters at a central London bank: “I can see, based on what I’ve seen in the debates so far, why they want to do so because this is a party that is out of ideas, out of purpose, they’ re tearing each other apart.”
The leadership contenders – Mr Sunak, Ms Truss, Ms Mordaunt, Mr Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch – have already taken part in debates on Channel 4 and ITV which have seen the would-be prime ministers taking primetime pot shots at each other.
Ms Mordaunt’s record in office came in for further attack from Ms Trevelyan on LBC Radio on Monday morning.
Asked about Ms Mordaunt’s grasp of details, Ms Trevelyan said: “We all do our jobs in different ways.
“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.”
Ms Trevelyan added: “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.”
But former minister Harriet Baldwin, an ally of Ms Mordaunt, said: “Having worked with Penny Mordaunt for a number of years, I can confirm this is not true.
“She is one of the most hard-working ministers and constituency MPs I know. I look forward to Penny continuing to put forward her positive vision of her for Britain.”
The contenders for the Tory leadership will be whittled down to just four as MPs cast their votes in the third round of the contest to find a successor to Mr Johnson.
Mr Tugendhat had fewer votes than his remaining rivals in the last ballot on Thursday and he would seem to be in the most jeopardy this time round.
The Tonbridge and Malling MP told Tory MPs on Monday that he had no intention of quitting the contest ahead of the ballot.
The PA News agency understands that at a behind-closed-doors hustings organized by the backbench 1922 Committee, he told MPs that it had been suggested to him that he should step aside and back another candidate.
“It will come as no surprise that some have suggested I could leave with a job as well. But my view is clear. It is not for me to make that decision – it is for you.”
Ms Trevelyan said she hopes he will get another chance to run for the leadership if he fails in this attempt.
“He has this extraordinary ability to bring people together to work with him who would not otherwise work together,” she said.
“I think it’s a genuine gift and I wanted the rest of the world to see much more of it.
“If this isn’t his time, I hope that there will be a future time when he can lead the party.”
Cabinet minister Kit Malthouse said he expects the Tories to pull together in a “spirit of harmony and love” after the leadership battle.
“All political parties are standing coalitions and the Conservative Party is the same,” he told Sky News.
“A vigorous exchange of ideas, in what is a challenging time for the country, should be expected when you are talking about such important issues and the leadership of a G7 nation.
“If it was just a polite agreement and consensus across the board, there wouldn’t be much point in having a competition at all.”
Mr Malthouse has not publicly declared his support for any of the candidates to succeed Mr Johnson.
A series of votes among Tory MPs this week will narrow the field down to a final two, who will then face a summer of campaigning for the support of party members in a final vote.
The new leader will be announced on September 5 and is expected to become prime minister the following day.
Mr Sunak said that if he is successful his first foreign trip will be to Kyiv to stress the UK’s continued support for Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion.
He told The Sun: “I will reinforce our policy of total support for Ukraine that Boris has so ably led.”
But Ms Mordaunt said her campaign has the support of 10 Ukrainian MPs.
Meanwhile, Ms Truss seized on analysis by the Center for Economics and Business Research which suggested that tax revenues in 2024/25 will be around £60 billion more than the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates, partly due to the impact of high inflation.
A spokeswoman for Ms Truss said: “The CEBR analysis shows that there is money for tax cuts whilst still bringing debt down.”