UK leadership TV debate shelved amid infighting

Mr Rishi Sunak (centre) and Ms Liz Truss during 'Britain's Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate' in London on July 17, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (AFP) - Television bosses were on Monday (July 18) forced to scrap a planned debate between contenders for the leadership of Britain's Conservative party, as MPs voted again to narrow down the field.

The five remaining candidates - Mr Rishi Sunak, Ms Liz Truss, Ms Kemi Badenoch, Ms Penny Mordaunt and Mr Tom Tugendhat - had been due to appear in the third televised debate on Tuesday night.

But former finance minister Sunak and Foreign Secretary Truss pulled out, said Sky News, which was due to host the programme.

"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," it added in a statement.

Conservative MPs are holding a series of votes to whittle down the candidates to just two, before a wider ballot of the Tory grassroots.

The latest starts at 4pm GMT , with Mr Tugendhat expected to win the least number of votes and be eliminated when the result is announced from 7pm GMT.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on July 7 he was quitting as Conservative leader after a government rebellion in protest at his scandal-hit administration.

He is staying on as prime minister until his successor is announced on Sept 5.

In the two previous televised debates - on Channel 4 on Friday and the ITV network on Sunday - the contenders clashed notably on whether to cut taxes to help ease a soaring cost of living crisis.

But Sunday's clash turned more acrimonious - and personal - with candidates encouraged to directly criticise one another and their proposals.

Mr Sunak called out Ms Truss for voting against Brexit, her previous membership of the Liberal Democrats, and her position on tax.

In turn, Ms Truss questioned Mr Sunak's stewardship of the economy.

Ms Badenoch attacked Ms Mordaunt for her stance on transgender rights - a rallying call in the "culture wars" that is exercising the Tory right.

Mr Paul Goodman, from the ConservativeHome website, likened the debates to a "political version of The Hunger Games" and questioned why they agreed to it.

"Tory MPs and activists will have watched in horror as several of the candidates flung buckets of manure over each other," he wrote.

He questioned why they would publicly accept to criticise the record of the government that all but one of them served in or the policies they supported as ministers.

The main opposition Labour party has called for Mr Johnson to leave immediately.

Its leader, Mr Keir Starmer, called the candidates' withdrawal was a sign of a party that was "out of ideas (and) out of purpose".

"Pulling out of a TV debate when you want to be prime minister doesn't show very much confidence," he added.

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