New Times,
New Thinking.

Who won the first Tory leadership TV debate?

Liz Truss’s poor performance means a final-round contest between Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt remains most likely.

By Harry Lambert

There will be plenty of time this summer for a debate between the final two Tory leadership candidates on the direction they want to take the country. The only relevant question at the moment is who is going to make that final pairing.  

That is why Tom Tugendhat’s strong performance in last night’s Channel 4 debate is, a little unfortunately for him, rather moot at this point. The foreign affairs select committee chair won last night’s snap Opinium poll, with 36 per cent of voters saying he performed best. But Tugendhat barely made it to this stage of the race, and trails Rishi Sunak – his rival in the establishment lane of the Tory party contest – by 69 MPs.  

Sunak himself did well enough among voters, coming second with the support of 25 per cent in Opinium’s poll. Tugendhat has little hope of making the final two, however charmed some viewers were by his performance. Sunak is currently only 19 MPs away from making the run-off, and his passable showing this evening has put him in a good position to pick up many of those 19 if Tugendhat (who has the backing of 32 MPs) falls short in the next round on Monday, as is expected. 

The outstanding question is which of the other three candidates will join Sunak in the final two. Penny Mordaunt (who has the support of 83 MPs) is the clear favourite to do so, and that remains the case after yesterday evening. Mordaunt beat Liz Truss, her main rival for a place alongside Sunak, in Opinium’s poll (and in a snap poll of Times readers). Truss has the backing of 64 MPs but no wavering MP can be encouraged to join her camp after this showing. 

That was no surprise – I suggested Truss would perform poorly last night, as anyone else who has watched the Foreign Secretary try to navigate questions on air before would probably have done, and I think the Tory right would be wise to drop her and swing behind Kemi Badenoch (who is fourth among MPs, with the backing of 49). Badenoch was the calmer and more assured performer this evening. But I do not expect the Tory right to align, and that will keep Mordaunt on the path to a run-off with Sunak. 

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[See also: The second Tory leadership debate exposed the party’s brutal divisions]

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