LONDON, July 15 — Former finance minister Rishi Sunak topped the latest vote Thursday by Conservative MPs to decide Britain’s next prime minister followed by bookmaker favourite Penny Mordaunt, as attacks on her escalated within the ruling party.

In the second ballot of Tory lawmakers since the contest began in earnest Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss came third, hours after formally launching her campaign by vowing tax cuts and a smaller state.

The race, which now numbers five candidates following the elimination of another long-shot contender, will intensify with two televised debates — on Friday and Sunday — before the next round of voting Monday.

The final pair of contenders to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to be put to Conservative party members over the summer, will be decided by the middle of next week.

The little-known Mordaunt, a long-standing Brexiteer who was briefly Britain’s first woman defence secretary before Johnson demoted her to less senior roles, has emerged as the darling of the Tory grassroots.

Recent polls of members point to her beating Sunak, Truss and the other remaining candidates, which include former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch and prominent backbencher Tom Tugendhat.

But in a sign of her new status as a frontrunner, Mordaunt faced a barrage of attacks Thursday from colleagues, on everything from her Brexit record to alleged misplaced support for transgender rights.

In the latest salvo as she exited the race, Attorney General Suella Braverman accused her of failing to “stand up for women” when Mordaunt shepherded maternity leave legislation through parliament last year.

She also questioned if she is an “authentic Brexiteer”, while party elder and Truss-backer Iain Duncan Smith said he did not know what she had been doing for Brexit over the past three years.

‘Character’

The leadership race was sparked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement last week that he would resign once a successor was chosen, following months of near-constant scandal.

The eventual winner is set to be announced on September 5.

The latest ballot saw 356 Tory MPs cast votes, with Sunak leading the field on 101, followed by Mordaunt on 83 and Truss — the favoured candidate of Johnson loyalists — on 64.

Braverman was eliminated after garnering just 27 votes while Tugendhat scraped through with 32. Braverman said she would now back Truss.

Thanking his supporters for their “continued support”, Sunak said he is “prepared to give everything I have in service to our nation”.

“Together we can restore trust, rebuild our economy and reunite the country,” added the 42-year-old, whose cabinet resignation last week helped spark a ministerial revolt against Johnson that prompted his downfall.

Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, after his elimination Wednesday, backed Sunak, calling him “one of the most decent, straight people with the highest standards of integrity”.

But the wealthy frontrunner faces questions about his family’s tax affairs and his prior decision to retain US residency, and polls now show high “unfavourable” views of him.

Meanwhile, he is opposed to immediate tax cuts to confront a post-pandemic cost-of-living crisis, stressing the need instead for fiscal responsibility.

“I don’t judge people by their bank accounts, I judge them by their character,” Sunak told BBC radio.

‘Part-time Penny’

Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Truss formally kicked off her campaign by promising “an aspiration nation”.

The 46-year-old insisted she would be ready “from day one” — in an apparent dig at Mordaunt, who has been criticised for lacking broad experience as Britain faces multiple crises.

Mordaunt, a Royal Navy reservist and junior trade minister who is relatively untainted by the scandals of Johnson’s premiership, has been targeted as she increasingly occupies the spotlight.

Political enemies have brander her “Part-time Penny”, alleging she has not taken her government roles seriously.

Former Brexit minister David Frost, who worked with her in dealing with the European Union, backed up the claims, calling her unfit for office.

“She wouldn’t always deliver tough messages to the European Union when that was necessary... she wasn’t always visible. Sometimes I didn’t even know where she was,” he said.

Mordaunt supporters rejected the portrayal, while Downing Street refused to comment.

She also lacks national name recognition. One recent poll found only 11 per cent of people could identify her from a photograph — two respondents even thought she was the singer Adele.

Meanwhile the Daily Mail took aim at her stance on transgender people, one of Britain’s “culture war” debates that has energised the party’s right-wing, accusing her of “telling lies” on the issue. — AFP