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Conservatives are braced for a “blue on blue dogfight” as Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss enter a six-week battle to become the UK’s next prime minister, with Penny Mordaunt’s supporters blaming hostile briefing for knocking her out of the race.

The vote among MPs selecting the final two candidates saw Sunak retain his lead, with 137 votes. Truss, the foreign secretary who had trailed Mordaunt throughout the previous rounds, took 113 votes, just ahead of Mordaunt’s 105.

Despite coming second among MPs, Truss is the favourite among Conservative party members, according to polling, with Sunak described as the underdog. About 160,000 fee-paying members – half aged over 60, 97% white and skewing male from southern England – will have the chance to vote next month to decide who will become prime minister in early September.

Mordaunt had faced an intense media onslaught over issues including her stance on transgender rights, which one senior supporter said had cost her “a lot more than four votes” – enough MPs to clinch second place if they had swapped sides.

Rival campaigns admit they expect a summer of difficult headlines for both Sunak, the Brexit-backing former chancellor, and Truss.

A Tory source said Truss had managed to successfully cast herself as a champion of Brexit, including gaining the trust of “red wall” MPs, and claimed there was little awareness in the country – even among party members – that she initially voted remain. “Be under no illusions, that will be something that Rishi will need to attack hard and fast. He’s the underdog now and they fight dirtier.”

Another Tory aide said Sunak should force Truss into as many TV appearances as possible. “The more people see of her, the more they will back Rishi,” they said.

Loyal supporters of Mordaunt believe their candidate would have been able to fight a cleaner campaign against Sunak. One predicted “a blue on blue dogfight” between Sunak and Truss, and pointed to bruising exchanges revealing private cabinet discussions in two televised leaders’ debates over the past week.

The pair will now face a vote by Tory members, with ballots due to arrive between 1 and 5 August, and the poll closing on 2 September. The winner succeeding Boris Johnson as prime minister will be announced three days later.

Truss and Sunak have already clashed sharply over tax and spending policy, despite having served alongside each other in Johnson’s cabinet. Truss has claimed Sunak’s policy of delaying tax cuts risks plunging the UK into recession, while he has called her promises of unfunded cuts “socialist”.

One Sunak supporter suggested the contenders would now adopt a more moderate tone as the contest reaches its final phase, with a dozen hustings scheduled throughout the summer.

“Both of them will be very mindful that either of them could win, and if they win they will have to govern and try and bring the party together, and I think they’ll be both mindful that you’ve got to conduct yourself in a way where that is possible,” they said.

But asked if Sunak would continue pointing out that Truss voted remain and was once a Liberal Democrat, or that her approach is socialist, the source said: “I don’t think they were attacks. What he actually said was the policies being suggested were socialist. It was a policy thing.”

Both candidates served under Johnson for almost his entire term, with Labour saying the race was now between “two continuity candidates”.

Conor McGinn, Labour’s deputy campaign coordinator, said: “Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are stooges of the Johnson administration whose fingerprints are all over the state the country finds itself in today.”

On Monday evening, Truss and Sunak will face each other in a BBC debate. Hustings events are beginning even sooner, with one organised by the Conservative Councillors’ Association to take place in Westminster on Thursday morning.

One Truss supporter said the foreign secretary had won a significant number of Kemi Badenoch’s backers over the course of the morning on Wednesday, after Badenoch was knocked out on Tuesday. “I think it wasn’t just the lack of experience, it was a real policy difference between Penny and Liz and ultimately people liked more of what they saw from Liz,” an MP said.

Jonathan Gullis, one of the MPs elected in 2019, endorsed Truss on Tuesday morning. “Ultimately what won a lot of MPs over was her approach to Brexit, she showed the most enthusiasm and commitment and was prepared to talk toughest – that’s what voters in my constituency want,” he said.

Mordaunt, who is a junior international trade minister but was never in Johnson’s cabinet, had positioned herself as an outsider offering the country a fresh start. At several points in the campaign she was the favourite, but Truss benefited by picking up votes from eliminated candidates on the right of the party, notably Badenoch.

In a statement, Mordaunt congratulated the others but called on them to end the fighting. “Politics isn’t easy. It can be a divisive and difficult place. We must all now work together to unify our party and focus on the job that needs to be done,” she said.

In her statement, Truss thanked MPs and said she would now “take the case to the Conservative party about my bold new economic plan” that would “cut taxes, grow our economy and unleash the potential of everyone in our United Kingdom”.

She promised to “hit the ground running” as prime minister, a message initially tweeted as just “hit the ground” before being deleted.

When the contest began, Sunak was the favourite despite the emergence in April of his wife’s non-domiciled tax status and his own possession of a US green card for a period when he was chancellor. He topped the MPs’ vote in every round, and always seemed likely to progress.

By contrast, Truss’s supporters will view her last-minute overtaking of Mordaunt as a sign her momentum could propel her into No 10. The foreign secretary’s campaign began slowly, hampered by a somewhat wooden style and mixed performances in TV debates.

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Tories brace for ‘blue on blue dogfight’ in last round of leadership race

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