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‘Dark arts’ and ‘dirty tricks’: how Tory leadership race became a mud-slinging war

Nadine Dorries accuses Rishi Sunak’s camp of underhand tactics as contest to become PM heats up

The race to replace Boris Johnson as Tory leader was turning acrimonious as the eight contenders prepared for the first-round vote today. 

The Daily Mail said the contest had already become a “bitter mud-slinging battle”, with leadership hopeful Jeremy Hunt warning of the risk of recession if current favourite Rishi Sunak landed the top job. 

And Nadine Dorries accused Sunak’s camp of “dark arts” and “dirty tricks”. Dorries, who is backing Liz Truss, claimed Sunak had ensured Jeremy Hunt got the required 20 votes to remain in the leadership contest, because “polling suggests that Hunt would struggle to pick up the support of Tory members in a run-off” against the former chancellor, The Times reported.

Westminster soap opera

The stories that emerge from Tory leadership elections are “part of Westminster folklore,” said Jon Craig, Sky News’s chief political correspondent. “These contests are top box office in the soap opera of British politics, with dirty tricks, plots, backstabbing, shocks and surprises.”

Despite being the current favourite to win this leadership contest, Sunak should “beware”, said Craig: “front runners rarely win.” And while the former chancellor currently has some 45 MPs publicly declaring for him, that could all change come today’s first-round vote. 

“MPs often pledge support to one candidate and then vote another. Some pledge support to more than one candidate,” added Craig. 

Recession under Sunak, warns Hunt 

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph yesterday, Sunak said he would model his premiership on Margaret Thatcher’s, as he described his economic vision as “common-sense Thatcherism”, and called for responsible tax cuts as he told his leadership rivals: “You have to earn what you spend.”

As the front-runner, Sunak is already taking flak from other leadership hopefuls, with Hunt, chair of the health select committee, warning that Sunak’s approach could lead the country into further economic woes.

Hunt told LBC Radio: “Rishi Sunak is… increasing corporation tax and it will be higher than not just America or Japan, but France and Germany as well.

“And I’m worried that on our current trajectory, we’re heading into recession, and we’ll be there for too long,” he said. “I was very worried when he announced his budget… The thing that struck me was this slashing of the growth forecast for next year.”

‘Dirty tricks’ and ‘dark arts’ 

A further sign of how “ill-tempered” the leadership race has become is an accusation from the culture minister that Sunak’s campaign team had resorted to “dirty tricks” and “dark arts” to boost the former chancellor’s chances of winning the leadership race, said The Mail. 

The Telegraph said that Dorries had “picked up on Twitter speculation”, leading her to accuse Sunak’s team of “lending votes” to Hunt so he could remain in the leadership contest – and ultimately giving Sunak a clearer run at becoming Conservative leader. 

Dorries, a Johnson loyalist who is now backing Truss for prime minister tweeted last night: “This is dirty tricks/a stitch-up/dark arts. Take your pick. Team Rishi wants the candidate they know they can definitely beat in the final two and that is Jeremy Hunt.”

The claim has been denied by both Sunak and Hunt’s camps, with the latter telling the paper: “We are running completely independent campaigns. It’s a very dangerous game to play, and so I think most people would be very wary before doing that sort of thing. I’m not saying it never happens.”

Eight MPs have gone through to the first round proper of the leadership race. 

Alongside Sunak, Hunt and Truss, Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat, Nadhim Zahawi, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch have secured the backing of at least 20 MPs.

A first vote will begin at 1.30pm today with those who made the first ballot now looking to win backing from 30 MPs out of the 358 total to survive into the second round on Thursday.

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