Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have withdrawn from the third Conservative leadership TV debate following concerns the clashes between rivals are damaging the party’s standing.
Sky News has been forced to cancel the programme after announcing Sunak and Truss – two of the leading contenders to be the UK’s next prime minister – “do not want to take part.”
Sky News’ statement added: “Conservative MPs are said to be concerned about the damage the debates are doing to the image of the Conservative party, exposing disagreements and splits within the party.”
The first debate on Channel 4 on Friday was followed by Sunday night’s ITV News and saw the five candidates – Truss, Sunak, Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat – attack each other over their records and policies.
A source within the camp of one of the frontrunners to succeed Boris Johnson, told the Telegraph: “There is a general sense that flagellating ourselves three times in five days on live TV isn’t a brilliant thing to be doing,”
Sir Keir Starmer said the withdrawals show “a lack of confidence” from politicians who want to become prime minister.
Truss has battle to be in final two with Sunak
Conservative MPs will vote for the five candidates tonight (July 18) and whoever gets the fewest number will automatically drop-out of the race. That is expected to be Tugendhat with Sunak proving the most popular candidate among Conservative MPs so far. Truss faces a battle from Mordaunt and Badenoch to be in the final two.
There will be another vote by Tory MPs tomorrow (Tuesday) to reduce the field of candidates to three before the final vote on Wednesday to select the final two. The 200,000 members of the Tory party will then elect their next leader – and the country’s prime minister – over the summer with the result to be announced on September 5.
Sky News’ Kay Burley – who was to have hosted tomorrow’s cancelled debate – tweeted: “Worth noting only 0.3% of the UK electorate will decide the next PM. TV debates are the candidates’ opportunity to showcase their vision to the other 99.7% of us.”
Sunak’s team have said they will be “very happy to do more debates if we are lucky enough to get to the next stage,” while a source in Truss’ campaign said: “The view from Team Truss is that the focus should be on MP hustings for the next couple of days, then we can look again at what TV debates are done during the members phase, if we make that.”
Johnson misses third Cobra heatwave meeting
Elsewhere, Downing Street has confirmed that caretaker prime minister Boris Johnson will miss a third Cobra meeting about the historic heatwave.
The Guardian reports that Number 10 is defending Johnson’s “decision to leave chairing the government’s emergency committee, Cobra, to a junior colleague”, Kit Malthouse.
Johnson missed last Thursday’s Cobra meeting about the Code Red heatwave. He was also absent for Saturday’s meeting as he was planning a party at Chequers, the PM’s “grace and favour” Buckinghamshire mansion.
Green MP Caroline Lucas is tabling an emergency question in the Commons today about the heatwave. Record temperatures have already been recorded in Wales with England predicted to top an unprecedented 40C.