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As Liz Truss surges, who is Labour’s dream Tory opponent?

Opinion in Keir Starmer’s party is divided on the weakest possible Conservative leader.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Liz Truss’s bid to become Conservative leader gained momentum today (19 July) as she closed the gap to rival Penny Mordaunt in the latest round of voting among Tory MPs. The Foreign Secretary won the backing of 86 colleagues, an increase of 15.

Kemi Badenoch has been knocked out of the contest, despite a groundswell of support for her on the party’s right. Truss, who has backed immediate tax cuts and been the fiercest critic of the front-runner Rishi Sunak in the debates, will be hopeful that many of Badenoch’s 59 supporters line up behind her.

It is unclear if tactical manoeuvrings took place, with rival camps potentially lending votes to others to deprive Badenoch of the chance to beat Truss to the final stages. Michael Gove, one of the Tories’ shrewdest operators, was Badenoch’s highest-profile endorser. The camp he now chooses to join could be decisive in the race.  

Mordaunt won 92 votes (up by ten), with supporters of the centrist Tom Tugendhat, who was eliminated in the previous round, supporting her. But with Badenoch’s votes available, it is Truss who looks most likely to join Sunak in the membership ballot.

[See also: Kemi Badenoch was the anti-groupthink candidate the Tories didn’t know they needed]

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Who would Labour prefer to face, given the choice? Opinion in Keir Starmer’s party is split. 

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Some policy brains believe Starmer can force Sunak – a household name after the Covid-19 pandemic – to own the economic failures of Boris Johnson’s government. Others point to the success of the former chancellor’s furlough scheme and believe that Truss, who would further expose Labour’s failure to ever elect a female leader, presents a bigger risk.

One Labour MP with a northern seat said: “Tugendhat could’ve been a problem for us, particularly in an area like mine, but thankfully they [the Tories] solved that problem themselves.” They added that most MPs see Truss as having “far more damaging ideas for the country”, but as being “too ineffective to actually see a lot of what she’s promising through”. 

They added that Sunak’s status as a tax-hiking chancellor, with a billionaire wife who held a non-domicile tax status, meant “the attack lines write themselves”. 

Many insist they fear Mordaunt, a relatively untested figure who has struggled during the contest, as she could present her leadership as a clean break with Johnson’s administration. 

With a Labour attack video featuring the Tory leadership candidates tearing into the government’s record receiving 1.5 million views this afternoon, however, the mood among Starmer’s team is buoyant.

The Tory contest has been marked by ferocious blue-on-blue battles, which are unlikely to subside whoever takes the crown. If the Conservatives fail to unite behind the members’ choice in September, Labour’s optimism could last until the next election.

[See also: Will Liz Truss be our new Prime Minister?]