The foreign affairs committee chair won the first round of applause of the night from the audience at Channel 4’s live debate for his response to the question – posed to each of the five candidates – of whether Mr Johnson was honest.
Following lengthy answers by each candidate save for Kemi Badenoch, who laughed and said “sometimes”, Mr Tugendhat began shaking his head and replied “no” before host Krishnan Guru-Murthy had finished asking him the question.
Mr Tugendhat narrowly survived the second round of voting among Tory MPs on Thursday, after securing just 32 votes – five more than the attorney general Suella Braverman, who was eliminated.
But the former army officer’s campaign insisted he was “in it to win it” and was looking forward to the three televised leadership debates – in which frontrunners such as Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, and to a lesser extent Liz Truss, appeared to have more to lose.
Promising Channel 4 viewers a “clean start”, which is his campaign slogan, and calling for “a break from those Johnson years”, Mr Tugendhat said: “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.”
The debate saw candidates clash over taxes, with ex-chancellor Mr Sunak accusing Ms Truss of touting economic “fairytales”, and striving to paint himself as a sole realist among the contenders, willing to take tough decisions such as hiking National Insurance to better fund the NHS and social care.
But this central pillar of Mr Sunak’s campaign risked being somewhat undermined, after Mr Tugendhat claimed the former chancellor had told him privately he was only raising National Insurance “because the boss wants it”.
As he grappled with the question of whether his boss in Downing Street was dishonest, Mr Sunak said: “I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt for as long as possible and ultimately I reached the conclusion that I couldn’t, and that’s why I resigned.
“There were a number of reasons that I resigned but trust and honesty was part of that.”
Ms Mordaunt – who was fired by Mr Johnson as defence secretary in 2019 over her support for his then-leadership rival Jeremy Hunt – said that “there have been some really severe issues” and that Mr Johnson “has paid a price for that”.
Ms Truss, who as foreign secretary was in Indonesia during the implosion of Mr Johnson’s government and remained silent until after he announced his plans to resign, said the prime minister had “been very clear himself that he made mistakes in government” and she had taken his explanation for inaccurate statements over the Partygate scandal “at face value”.
She added: “I stood by Boris Johnson, of course, I raised issues with him in private, but I supported him for the leadership election. I was part of his Cabinet and I owed him my loyalty.”
A snap poll of 1,159 viewers by Opinium found that 36 per cent believed Mr Tugendhat had performed best in the debate, placing him 11 points ahead of the frontrunner Mr Sunak.
Ms Truss, meanwhile, appeared to have a disastrous outing, as polling broken down by voter-intention found that just 10 per cent of those who voted Tory in 2019 thought she had performed best – a figure which fell even lower among the general population.
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