Allies of Rishi Sunak have played down the defection of one of his supporters – while Liz Truss’s team have hinted that more could follow – as the two campaign teams traded “blue-on-blue” attacks over economic policy.
Former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers, who is backing Mr Sunak, insisted that “inevitably MPs change their mind during these contests”, when asked about Chris Skidmore’s decision to switch allegiances.
The Truss campaign, meanwhile, has claimed to be in touch with other Sunak-supporting MPs who could follow in Mr Skidmore’s footsteps, potentially triggering a “bigger exodus” from the former chancellor’s camp.
Ms Villiers told Sky News that MPs changing their minds “is a routine part of every Conservative leadership election contest there’s ever been”.
She added: “Rishi had a tremendously good hustings in Darlington last night, in the Sky hustings he won over that audience, he’s getting a tremendous reception on the ground – he’s campaigning to win.”
However, the Truss campaign suggested there could be more defections on the cards, as her team claimed to be speaking with others currently backing Mr Sunak.
“We’re in talks with others from camp Rishi and Chris coming over could trigger a bigger exodus of MPs from Sunak to us,” a spokesperson said.
Ms Villiers’ remarks came as former Tory Party leader Lord Howard said he agreed with Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab’s suggestion that Ms Truss’s tax-cutting plans would be an “electoral suicide note”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We can only hope to win the next election if inflation is under control, borrowing is under control and interest rates are coming down.
“Rishi Sunak is the only candidate whose policies have any chance of delivering that outcome.”
He added: “I really do agree with Dominic Raab that the method that Liz Truss is proposing would be suicidal. We’ve seen it before in the 1970s, it led to a recession and the Labour government, and I didn’t want to see it again.”
Questions have been raised over any immediate cross-Government action to tackle energy price hikes.
Ms Truss has branded proposals to agree support for rising energy bills with the Government and Mr Sunak before the Tory leadership contest is over as “bizarre”.
Education Secretary and Truss supporter James Cleverly told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “It’s not in the hands of her or the campaign team to truncate this process. I would love it if Liz stepped into Number 10 Downing Street tomorrow but that’s not in her gift.”
He added: “In order to bring about changes to tax systems or to financial support systems, we need to have votes in the House, that needs to go through a proper scrutiny process.
“It is not as simple as recalling Parliament to have an emergency debate on something like military action, which is a very simple one-question yes or no answer.
“An emergency budget needs to be a comprehensive and by definition, therefore, a complicated thing. It’s not just one day sitting, it’s an extended process of debate in Parliament, and that is best done when Parliament has come back in September, and that’s what Liz has committed to do.”
Mr Cleverly said Ms Truss “will look at” the energy price rises through an emergency budget.
He told Sky News: “We have already got a support package in place, a very, very significant, unprecedentedly large support package in place.
“We recognise that prices are projected to go up higher than the initial projections and so that’s why Liz has said that she will look at that, that’s best done through an emergency budget.
“That’s not something you can do through a recall of Parliament – we have to do that when we have a new prime minister when the House comes back in September, and we can do that before those prices go up in October, as we know they inevitably will.”
Ms Villiers said “no government can insulate everyone” from the rising cost of energy, but that Mr Sunak “certainly recognises that we need to do more”.
She told Sky News: “Rishi’s determined, if he’s PM, to do as much as he can to help people through what is a crisis around the world with energy bills.
“I mean, sadly, no government can insulate everyone from all these costs, but Rishi certainly recognises that we need to do more and he’s already said we should suspend VAT on energy bills.”
Asked about the anxiety people are facing with regard to their energy bills, Ms Villers said she wants them “to be reassured that … the big package – the £37 billion package – is starting to be delivered to people’s bank accounts now and those energy discounts will be kicking in from October”.
She added that “Rishi has the right plan for the economy” at a time when the country is “heading into a really serious situation”.
“Our first priority has to be to tackle inflation – Rishi is the person with a plan to do that, that’s why I’m backing him,” she added.
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