Conservative MPs have reacted with shock and sorrow to the scale of “blue-on-blue” attacks in the Conservative leadership race – culminating in bitter clashes during ITV’s debate on Sunday night.
Some warned that the in-fighting could “kill” their party, while others said the attacks were “shameful”.
Westminster WhatsApp groups were “kicking off more than usual” after the debate, according to sources, as people warned about the damage that this could do to the party.
Following a night in which Liz Truss accused the former chancellor Rishi Sunak of driving the country towards recession, and he hit back that her ideas were “socialist”, and Kemi Badenoch accused Tom Tugendhat of failing to have enough experience, while Penny Mordaunt faced attacks over trans issues, MPs started messaging each other over WhatsApp.
They warned that the debate, but also “smears” in the newspaper, threatened to damage the party because of the divisiveness.
In messages seen by ITV News, one MP warned: “The division, smears and personal attacks this weekend have been disgraceful. Nothing will kill our party more than blue on blue.”
Another wrote: “We have an 80-seat majority and have spent time in-fighting and bringing down the party and are now fighting publicly. It’s shameful. I can’t believe this is happening.”
One MP told ITV news that it was more “sorry than anger” in terms of the mood, but admitted: “It’s hard to see how people partner up when they go so hard at each other.”
The battle continued on Monday morning as Liz Truss’s team highlighted a new analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) suggesting that there will be £60bn more than the Office for Budget Responsibility’s base estimates in 2024/25.
Setting out the foreign secretary’s plans to use that to help families, a spokesperson said: “Under Rishi Sunak’s time as chancellor the tax burden in the UK has risen to the highest it has been in 70 years and the UK is forecast to have the lowest growth in the G20.”
Mordaunt tried to hit back at newspaper briefings suggesting she had changed her mind on the issue of whether trans people should be able to “self identify”, saying: “It is unedifying… I know why this is being done, but all attempts to paint me as an out-of-touch individual will fail.”
Some argued that the TV debates had been a mistake.
But not everyone agreed that there should not be robust attacks. One MP wrote: “Disagree. If we are changing a PM without the public’s permission then the public deserve to see who we are making the next PM.”
However, this morning it emerged that Rishi Sunak would no longer do a Sky News debate on Tuesday, but would now only do one when the competition was down to the final two.