The blue on blue attacks have ramped up after Rishi Sunak was accused of “mansplaining” to Liz Truss during their first head-to-head TV debate.
Mr Sunak spoke over Ms Truss several times as she attempted to explain her tax-cutting policies to the BBC audience of Tory members.
This prompted accusations of “mansplaining” – when a man explains something, typically to a woman, in a condescending or patronising manner.
Allies of Ms Truss said Mr Sunak had demonstrated “aggressive mansplaining and shouty private school behaviour”.
But veteran Conservative David Davis, who has run for leader twice, dismissed the accusations and said former chancellor Mr Sunak is simply “passionate”.
He told Sky News’ Kay Burley: “I think he’s passionate about these issues, he cares about it.
“He really does care about the fact that either us or our children will face phenomenal costs on this policy, life destroying, you’d have to sell your house, move out.
“I think it actually reflects well on him that he’s that passionate about the policy.”
Mr Davis added that when he was fighting for the leadership against David Cameron in 2005 he was “just as forensic and difficult” with him, but nobody accused him of “anything untoward”.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke, who is backing Ms Truss, said Mr Sunak was “pretty aggressive”.
He told Sky News: “There were some pretty aggressive moments from Rishi at the beginning as Liz tried to set out her case.
“But by and large, I think the debate was held in a reasonable spirit, reflecting obviously the importance of issues.”
Despite the pair saying they want to run clean campaigns, the contest has become more and more angsty, with allies of the two trading increasingly personal attacks over the weekend.
During the debate, the first since they were whittled down to the final two, Ms Truss said she would impose a temporary moratorium on the green energy levy and reverse the national insurance rise.
She also said her plans would see the government start paying down the debt that mounted up through COVID relief measures implemented by Mr Sunak in three years’ time.
As she accused Mr Sunak of being “contractionary” by putting up taxes, which she said would lead to a recession, Mr Sunak interrupted her.
He said: “Liz, your plans… your own economic adviser has said that will lead to mortgage interest rates going up to 7%. Can you imagine what that’s going to do for everyone here and everyone watching? That’s thousands of pounds on their mortgage bill.”
And as Ms Truss tried to continue, Mr Sunak said: “It’s going to tip millions of people into misery, and it’s going to mean we have absolutely no chance of winning the next election either.”
Sophie Raworth, who was hosting the debate, had to step in to insist Mr Sunak allowed Ms Truss to speak.
After that, the pair had some cordial exchanges, including when Ms Truss complimented Mr Sunak on his dress sense after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries earlier criticised his expensive taste in clothes.
They also said they would want the other to be involved in their government.
Analysis: Sunak comes out more aggressive
The smiles didn’t last long. From the outset, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss argued bitterly for nearly half the debate on the economy and tax.
Her argument: “I’ll cut taxes now.” Him saying that it’s irresponsible and immoral. At times that got pretty fierce.
Mr Sunak, the underdog, was much more aggressive than in previous debates. But Ms Truss fought back strongly.
Most of it was more lively and more bitter, you might say, than the two previous debates they have taken part in.
China and Ukraine were dealt with only briefly. And then it got personal.
They also clashed on loyalty to Boris Johnson. There were personal questions as well about Ms Truss’s earrings and Rishi Sunak’s expensive suits. It all got quite passionate at times.
And finally, frontrunner Ms Truss invited Mr Sunak to be in her cabinet if she wins – and he appeared to say yes.
Ms Truss the frontrunner, but we’ve seen Mr Sunak catching up and a snap opinion poll last night suggested on the performances here in Stoke-on-Trent it’s neck and neck.
A snap poll by Opinium after the debate, based on a sample of 1,032 voters, found 39% believed Mr Sunak had performed best, compared to 38% for Ms Truss.
However, betting odds remain in favour of Ms Truss.
Postal ballots are set to arrive at Tory members’ doorsteps by 5 August, with another TV debate on Tuesday evening and a third on 4 August on Sky News.
Conservative leadership debate: Be in the audience
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will take part in a head-to-head debate on Sky News on Thursday 4th August at 8pm hosted by Kay Burley.
If you would like to be a member of the live studio audience and be in with a chance of asking a question, please apply here.