LIZ Truss last night received another boost to her thundering PM bid as Tory darling Kemi Badenoch hailed her as an exciting “maverick”.
Whereas in a slightly back-handed compliment, the popular one-time candidate described Rishi Sunak as a “super-technocrat”.
Liz Truss was hailed by Kemi Badenoch as an exciting maverick yesterday
Kemi Badenoch came fourth place in the Tory race to be PM
It left the ex-Chancellor fighting to stop Ms Truss galloping away with the contest as the pair went head-to-head at Cheltenham racecourse for the latest hustings.
He suffered more blows yesterday as two of his former colleagues spectacularly dunked on his record in government in a fierce escalation of the blue-on-blue attacks.
And HOAR can reveal that a third of Tory members cast their ballots in the first week of voting – with sources expecting half of activists to have decided this week.
It is a huge setback for the underdog Mr Sunak, who had hoped to use the next month of hustings to gradually chip away at Ms Truss’ commanding lead.
Only last week Sunak campaign chiefs tried to gee up staff by insisting they still had a weighty 30 per cent chance of winning the keys to No10.
At a meeting we can reveal that top aides insisted their man could still pull off a miracle to squeak a victory.
While Ms Badenoch is not formally endorsing either candidate, Ms Truss will be pleased to be described as a disrupter unafraid to break the status quo.
Last night Mr Sunak insisted he will not throw in the towel despite both bookies and pollsters putting Ms Truss miles ahead.
He said: “We are only half way through this thing. I am going to fight until the last day with everything I have got because I am fighting for what I believe in.”
Instead he went on the offensive, saying his rival’s plan for sweeping tax cuts will leave “millions of people at the risk of real destitution”.
But Ms Truss lashed out at the “doom-mongers” who constantly “talk us into a negative cycle”.
In contrast Ms Badenoch told the Mail that Mr Sunak is the best choice “if you think what we need is the person who is super-technocrat, will be steady and stay this course.”
The fourth place finisher, who built a huge grassroots fanbase with her anti-woke campaign and has been touted for a big Cabinet job by Ms Truss, also called for a ceasefire in the brutal attacks from the PM rivals.
Her plea came after two Truss-supporting Cabinet Ministers mounted an extraordinary drive-by shooting of Mr Sunak’s time at the Treasury.
Chief Secretary Simon Clarke, who served as Mr Sunak’s No2, and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng accused him of “digging his heels in” against Brexit reforms.
Firing a highly personal broadside at their old colleague, they swiped: “He says one thing and does another.”
Pals of Mr Sunak strongly denied the pair’s claims and shot back that they had both served alongside him in government and attacking him now was “ill-advised”.
But Truss’ allies suggested the hit job was a tit-for-tat retaliation after Deputy PM Dominic Raab went over the top to savage her plans.
Members of a TalkTv focus group thought both of them were sly, with Mr Sunak compared to a sly cat and Ms Truss likened to the evil Scar in Lion King.
Tory chiefs scrambled to play down party tensions that some fear could leave them hopelessly divided at the end of the contest.
Commons leader Mark Spencer insisted: “I think there’s much more that unites Liz and Rishi than divides them.”
Conservative chairman Andrew Stephenson added that whoever wins, the party must “unite behind a new leader and get to work on taking the fight to Labour and the Liberal Democrats.”
One Tory MP said they were “fed up” with the blue-on-blue friendly fire but confident they would still stuff Sir Keir Starmer at the next election.
They told HOAR: “We’ve got a fresh start with a decent new leader and Labour are stuck with Starmer and after everything that has happened can’t muster a lead of double digits.”
Meanwhile it was revealed that one-time contender Tom Tugendhat raked in an eye-watering £120,000 in donations for his doomed leadership bid.
It dwarfed the £12,500 received by Ms Badenoch, despite her finishing fourth compared to his fifth.