The UK transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has denied Rishi Sunak’s Conservative leadership campaign has engaged in “dirty tricks”.
His comments came after the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, who is supporting Liz Truss in the election, accused the former chancellor’s team of using “dark arts” to help get Jeremy Hunt into the next round because “Team Rishi” believed Sunak would beat Hunt in the final run-off vote of party members.
Shapps, who dropped out of the race to support Sunak, told Sky News: “Simply, in this case it just didn’t happen.”
He added: “Jeremy Hunt himself has said everybody on his nomination paper is somebody who is very close to his campaign. So even he has rubbished it.”
Shapps also dismissed a claim by the Brexit opportunities minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, also a Truss supporter, that Sunak was a “socialist chancellor”. “Clearly a guy who is fiscally Conservative, wants to get the debt and deficit down, who wants to get the debt falling as a proportion of the overall economy – the idea that this is a socialist is clearly not true,” he said.
Sunak’s campaign received a further boost on Wednesday morning when the health secretary, Steve Barclay, said he was backing him for the leadership.
Tory MPs will have the chance to vote on Wednesday for the eight contenders vying to replace Boris Johnson, as balloting begins to find his successor.
Sunak, Liz Truss, Tom Tugendhat, Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Jeremy Hunt, Nadhim Zahawi and Suella Braverman will be on the ballot after they secured the 20 nominations from fellow MPs needed to enter the contest. The vote is expected to take place between 1.30pm and 3.30pm on Wednesday, with the result announced at about 5pm. Any candidate with fewer than 30 votes will drop out.
Shapps was also asked about Sunak paying tribute to Johnson when he launched his campaign on Tuesday night, calling the prime minister a “remarkable man” despite having questioned his competence, honesty and seriousness in his resignation letter.
“I think that it’s clear that you can both be brilliant as an individual and also be flawed,” he said. “As I have pointed out many times over the last year or two, Boris Johnson is a brilliant individual who did many remarkable things, including getting us through this Brexit nightmare that we’ve lived through over the past six years and the way that he’s been one of the principal leaders in the world, but he has obviously made mistakes.”
He added. “Like all of us, you can be both great and flawed. It applies to every single one of us. There are no exceptions to that.”
Shapps denied Sunak’s praise of the prime minister was because the leadership challenger realised there was still substantial grassroots support for Johnson.
“I just don’t agree with that,” he said. “Rishi, myself and others all worked very, very closely with the prime minister, even right through to and close to the end, to try to pull things round to try to rescue the situation.
“That does not detract from the fact that Boris Johnson has been remarkable in many ways and it’s a huge sadness to many voters, myself included as a member of his cabinet, that he wasn’t able to pull around.”
He added: “I personally thought that despite some issues, misgivings, some shortcomings, I actually thought his advantages outweighed.”
On the airport strikes, Shapps said Sunak had a 22-point plan, including changing the law to speed up the processing of security clearances.
“We would also use some Brexit freedoms and ask the airports to be realistic about the programmes that they run, all in order to ensure that when the schools break up for the summer, across the whole country – and they already have in parts and Scotland, for example – to make some of the airports run as smoothly as possible,” he said.
Shapps also said he did not think it was the right time for the railways to be striking. “I don’t think that is justified, and one of the things which I’ve talked about before, is we have to modernise our railways because we can’t have a situation where we can’t run services at the weekends because we aren’t allowed to put it in the contract that sometimes you work a weekend,” he said.