Backers of Tory leadership hopeful Andrea Leadsom yesterday accused rivals of “dirty tricks” aimed at shutting their candidate out of the contest.
They warned that grassroots members and the wider public would not forgive the party if the leadership result was seen as a stitch-up.
It comes as Leadsom faced a wave of attacks over her experience and views, as well as pressure over her pledge to review the £55bn HS2 high-speed rail scheme.
The result of the first ballot of MPs on Tuesday night saw Home Secretary Theresa May take 165 votes, with Leadsom a distant second on 66 and Michael Gove on 48. It eliminated former defence secretary Liam Fox — who got 16 votes — while Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb withdrew after getting 34.
But Leadsom supporters claim a deal is being done to lend some of May’s backers to Gove to inflate his total and keep their candidate from reaching the final two who will be put to a vote of the members.
One Leadsom backer told the Standard: “There’s no doubt about dirty tricks. We’ve seen the conversations between people on Gove’s team and May’s team going on around the place.”
May’s camp said there were no deals, while Gove’s spokesman Dominic Raab said the claims were “desperate stuff”.
Another Leadsom backer, Tim Loughton, said: “The membership will feel cheated if they are not given a genuine choice.”
Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt, also supporting Leadsom, said the public would not “forgive” the Conservatives for failing to put forward the best candidates.
She added: “I would say to all my colleagues... if you are voting for a candidate who you do not think is the best person to lead this country, you are doing something wrong.”
She also said that allegations that Leadsom’s career in financial services had been exaggerated were “totally bogus”.
Leadsom’s supporters previously said that her career had seen her running big teams and managing investments worth billions of pounds.
But former colleague Robert Stephens yesterday claimed that in her 10 years at Perpetual/Invesco Perpetual “she did not manage any teams, large or small, and she certainly did not manage any funds”.
Energy Minister Leadsom has also faced accusations that she flipped her position on Brexit to win support among the Tory membership.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin today defended HS2 as the “most important infrastructure project of this generation”.
Meanwhile a trade union has called on Leadsom to give guarantees on workers’ rights post-Brexit in the wake of a speech she made calling for people who work in small businesses to have no employee protection at all.
In a Commons debate in May 2012, Leadsom, the Conservative Treasury minister who has been picking up momentum in the race to succeed Cameron, proposed scrapping all regulations for businesses with three employees or fewer.
“I envisage there being absolutely no regulation whatsoever – no minimum wage, no maternity or paternity rights, no unfair dismissal rights, no pension rights – for the smallest companies that are trying to get off the ground, in order to give them a chance,” she suggested.
Steve Turner, the assistant general secretary of Unite, said Leadsom should say whether or not she still stood by her 2012 comments. “Leadsom must now make her position unequivocally clear – state now that she supports basic rights for the UK’s workers and will fight to protect these in the Brexit negotiations,” he said.
“To betray millions of voters like this adds yet another layer of distrust to the broken relationship between the public and politicians. It will also plunge already vulnerable people in miserable, precarious employment.”
Louise Haigh, a Labour MP who drew attention to the 2012 speech as Leadsom’s support surged, said Remain campaigners had always feared workers’ rights would be a casualty of a vote to leave the EU. “Now we could face an emboldened Tory party, led by Brexiters, with workers’ protection watered down at the very least,” she said.
Leadsom’s staff were not available for comment on whether or not she stood by the speech.