Tory MPs vote on leadership candidates as backstabbing claims rock party


The bitter battle to be Britain's next prime minister will see the final two candidates for Tory leader decided today, as the party was rocked by accusations of backstabbing and vote-rigging.

Conservative MPs will take part in a ballot on who will be in the run-off contest that grass roots members will vote on.

It comes after Justice Secretary Michael Gove's team insisted he was kept in the dark about a plot to get supporters of Home Secretary Theresa May to switch sides in order to block the surge of Andrea Leadsom.

The Justice Secretary's campaign manager Nick Boles was forced into a humiliating apology after being caught pushing pro-May MPs to vote tactically to ensure Mr Gove made the final two.

Mr Boles apologised, claiming Mr Gove "did not know about it let alone authorise it. And it does not reflect his views."

The storm erupted after the Justice Secretary was confronted at election hustings over the texts sent by Mr Boles to scores of MPs.

The text said Mr Boles thought it was "overwhelmingly likely" Mrs May would triumph, but he was "seriously frightened" that if Ms Leadsom made the final two she could connect with members in the way Iain Duncan Smith had previously.

The text said: "I am seriously frightened about the risk of allowing Andrea Leadsom onto the membership ballot.

"What if Theresa stumbles? Are we really confident that the membership won't vote for a fresh face who shares their attitudes about much of modern life, like they did with IDS?

"Michael doesn't mind spending two months taking a good thrashing from Theresa if that is what it takes to put the party's interest and the national interest, surely we must all work together to stop AL?"

When Mr Gove was challenged about the text at the hustings, a pro-May MP said he met the question with "a sort of giggle, and then he sat down. He didn't disown it, because so many MPs have received it, it is quite difficult to disown it."

Former leader Mr Duncan Smith warned that Tory MPs "do not want to spend the whole time stabbing each other in the back".

The row exploded as Ms Leadsom published her CV in a bid to clear up controversy over her past business roles after it was claimed by opponents that she has been exaggerating her experience.

The hustings also saw Ms Leadsom say that she would not release her tax returns, as other candidates have, unless she made the run-off. 

The minister told MPs that they could come to see a summary of her tax affairs personally if they wanted to.

Referring to unguarded comments recorded by Sky News by Tory former chancellor Ken Clarke in which he referred to Mrs May as "a bloody difficult woman", the Home Secretary joked that the next person to take that view of her would be Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president.

The hustings came as Conservative MPs who support all three remaining leadership candidates are urging the party to speed up the contest so a new prime minister is chosen by the end of the month.

A group of around 30 MPs have signed a letter written by former Tory chairman Grant Shapps, which calls on the party to give members three weeks to pick a leader after the third place candidate is eliminated on Thursday.

The Home Secretary is clear favourite to be one of the two contenders chosen by MPs to go forward to a vote of around 150,000 Conservative members across the country to elect a new leader - and prime minister - on September 9.