Tom Tugendhat clear winner of first Tory leadership debate, snap poll finds

Just 6 per cent of viewers believe Liz Truss performed the best, Opinium finds

Andy Gregory
Saturday 16 July 2022 00:32 BST
Tugendhat says Sunak agreed to National Insurance rise because ‘the boss wanted it’

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Tom Tugendhat has emerged as the clear winner of the first live televised debate in the Tory leadership race, according to snap polling which placed him significantly ahead of frontrunner Rishi Sunak.

The five candidates went head-to-head on Channel 4 on Friday evening, with Mr Tugendhat having only narrowly survived the second ballot the previous day, receiving the votes of just five more Tory MPs than attorney general Suella Braverman, who was eliminated.

His decision to fight on and take part in the televised debates appeared fruitful, as polling by Opinium of 1,159 people who watched Friday’s contest found 36 per cent thought the relatively unknown foreign affairs committee chair had performed the best.

This placed him nine points ahead of Mr Sunak, the former chancellor who appeared most likely to make it to the final two after receiving 101 votes from Tory MPs on Thursday.

Penny Mordaunt, who is in second place after enjoying a remarkable surge of backing from Conservative MPs and is a clear favourite among the Tory Party members who will ultimately decide Boris Johnson’s successor, appeared to be less well received by the public during Friday’s debate.

The former defence secretary received just 12 per cent of the vote – the same share as ex-equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, an MP on the right wing of the Tory Party who also holds a relatively low public profile.

But the first debate appears to have gone most awry for Liz Truss, the foreign secretary who despite having spent months being touted as a potential successor to Mr Johnson now finds herself in third place behind Ms Mordaunt.

Ms Truss will be hopeful that Conservative MPs do not agree with the assessment of those polled by Opinium – just 6 per cent of whom believed she performed best in the debate – as she seeks to hoover up the support of Ms Braverman and Ms Badenoch in order to make it to the final two.

But a breakdown of the polling by Opinium by voter-intention suggests otherwise, showing the foreign secretary as effectively coming last in Friday’s debate in the eyes of Conservative voters, Labour voters and swing voters alike.

The race was tighter at the top among Conservative voters than the general population, however, with 29 per cent believing Mr Tugendhat had performed best – placing him just one point ahead of Mr Sunak.

Ms Mordaunt and Ms Truss also enjoyed a slightly higher percentage of backing for their performance on Friday among Tory voters, winning 18 and 10 per cent of the vote respectively, the pollster found.

It almost appeared as though Ms Truss’s campaign team were seeking to run damage control before the debate was over, with an unfortunately-timed tweet sent out from her official Twitter account reading: “It’s only by walking the walk – not talking the talk – that we really restore trust.”

Mr Tugendhat was the first of the five candidates to win a round of applause from the Channel 4 studio audience, after he was the only contender to give a straight answer on whether they believed Mr Johnson was an honest man.

He quickly began shaking his head and answered “no” before host Krishnan Guru-Murthy had finished asking the question.

Promising Channel 4 viewers a “clean start”, which is his campaign slogan, and calling for “a break from those Johnson years”, Mr Tugendhat added: “I’ve been holding a mirror to many of our actions and asking those in our party, those in our leadership positions, to ask themselves ‘is that what the public really expects?’

“Are you serving the people of the United Kingdom or are you serving your career? Because that’s the real question tonight. That’s the real question for all of us.”

Asked why people should trust him, the 49-year-old appeared to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, the beloved headmaster in the Harry Potter series, as he told viewers: “It’s easy to stand up to your enemies – it’s sometimes harder to stand up to your friends.”

Mr Tugendhat appeared savvy to this, however, as he sought to deal a heavy blow to Mr Sunak’s central campaign message of being a responsible realist willing to take tough decisions.

Citing a private conversation with the chancellor, Mr Tugendhat claimed Mr Sunak had told him that he only acted to hike National Insurance contributions – thereby raising funds for health and social care –because the prime minister had wanted him to.

Meanwhile, an expert in political forecasting suggested that Ms Truss’s “implosion” during the debate could significantly “move the dial” on the leadership race.

“I’ve followed the markets on leadership debates professionally for more than 20 years and it’s rare they move the dial more than a tiny bit,” said Leighton Vaughan Williams, an economics professor who heads Nottingham Business School’s political forecasting unit.

“That changed tonight, when Liz Truss imploded. If she survives this, let’s just call off debates in future.”

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