The “puerile”, “shameful” and “toxic” attacks being traded by prime ministerial hopefuls Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss could cost the Conservatives the next election, MPs have warned.
Tory MPs called for standards to be raised in the party’s leadership campaign, telling i that the fractious debate was “sullying the Conservative brand”.
It came after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a supporter of Ms Truss, attacked Mr Sunak for wearing a £3,500 suit, while claiming the Foreign Secretary was more likely to be seen in a pair of £4.50 earrings.
The pair’s campaigns have also traded bitter blows over the economy, immigration and national security.
They have blamed each other for “ad hominem” attacks, with Mr Sunak’s team unhappy at the ex-chancellor being described as “a totally boring failed economist” in a briefing to the Times.
Meanwhile, Ms Truss’s camp were unhappy with claims by Mr Sunak’s supporters that the Foreign Secretary had flip-flopped on the threat posed by China, as she did from “being a Lib-Dem, Remainer and a Cameroon” to an ardent Brexiteer.
Ms Dorries drew the harshest criticism after contrasting Ms Truss’s earrings “from Claire’s Accessories” with Mr Sunak wearing “Prada shoes worth £450” and a “£3,500 bespoke suit”.
Backers of Mr Sunak were baffled by Ms Dorries’s attacks, particularly after it emerged that in a 2007 Guardian interview she had admitted to owning “£6,000 diamond earrings” and confessed to going on £1,000 shopping sprees.
A source said: “They obviously think it’s working for them, but I’m really not sure it’s a great idea.”
Cabinet Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Johnny Mercer, said it was “time to raise standards”, tweeting: “Probably worth remembering that on current trajectory we are out of power in two years’ time.
“The puerile nature of this leadership contest is embarrassing.”
Alicia Kearns told i the attacks were “shameful”, adding: “Colleagues should focus on pushing forward the positive agendas of their own candidate, not competing for who can best sully the Conservative brand.
“The country has given the Conservatives a strong mandate – it is our duty to deliver on that and focus on the job at hand, not distractions and discord encouraged by the media.”
Veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale told i that the leadership rivals’ attacks on each other’s records damaged their credibility.
Asked if it was bad for the party going into the next election, he said: “It’s not good. And given both of them were party to those decisions in Government, you do rather have to say, what were you doing about it at the time other than staying in office because you liked your job?”
Asked if voters would notice, he replied: “Of course they do. Voters are not stupid. I just find it less than credible.”
Another Conservative MP, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed that the party’s election prospects were at stake, describing the attacks as “incredibly unedifying”.
Tory elections guru Lord Hayward told i the negative campaigning “doesn’t in itself” threaten the party’s election prospects but warned of “festering difficulty behind the scenes” in the “long term”.
He urged the candidates to bury the hatchet once the contest was over, and said he believed they would, but warned that “it’s easier said than done”.
Lord Hayward said: “It doesn’t look good, it will add complications because there will be difficulties between the individuals in the future but parties have got over this sort of thing before and they will on this occasion.
“Will it cost the election? No. But will there be ongoing difficulties? Yes.”
MP Kevin Hollinrake, a close ally of Mr Sunak, defended the candidates making “factual and reasonable” points about each other’s records in office, but said he would “steer away” supporters from “the personal stuff”.
“If it gets nasty, unseemly, that will put us in a bad light, which can’t be helpful,” he told i.
Tom Tugendhat, who finished fifth in the leadership race, issued a plea for unity, telling BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: “I hope very much what we’ll do is we’ll see this debate focus on ideas rather than on personalities.”