Andrea Leadsom has stumbled at a hustings with fellow Tory MPs as she made her pitch to be the next prime minister.
Backbenchers left a packed meeting of the 1922 committee muttering under their breath after the energy minister fielded questions on Brexit and how much support she was receiving from UKIP.
Leadsom, a prominent Leave campaigner, was grilled over her links to controversial campaign group Leave.EU, which is endorsing her leadership bid.
One cabinet minister said she was asked three times about her backing from UKIP and Leave.EU. “When you’re asked to say you’re not UKIP at a hustings to be leader of the Conservative party, you're in trouble,” he said. "It was a car crash."
Another MP said her pitch was a “fucking shambles", adding: "She babbled on about the importance of the frontal cortex for emotional development, said she’d trigger Article 50 immediately – and then that she wouldn’t. She was good for the first three minutes though."
But a self-selecting survey of Tory members on ConservativeHome found that Leadsom was the most popular choice to be the next Tory leader. She has also been backed by ex–London mayor Boris Johnson, who believes she has "the zap, the drive, and the determination" to be the next PM.
Leadsom was the final of the five Tory leadership candidates to address a packed meeting of the backbench 1922 committee on Monday evening. MPs crammed into a committee room in parliament to hear them spell out – in just 15 minutes each – why they had what it takes to be prime minister.
They were allowed to use the time as they saw fit, with most making a short statement before answering questions from the party. The meeting came ahead of the first round of voting on Tuesday, which will see the contender with the fewest votes from MPs knocked out of the race.
Justice secretary Michael Gove was the first to speak, looking confident as he strolled past waiting journalists. The prominent anti-EU campaigner shocked Westminster last week when he announced he was running – prompting his ally and expected frontrunner Johnson to drop out.
Yet surprisingly not one MP asked Gove about the events of last week or about Johnson, who was not present at the meeting. One MP, a former Johnson backer, left the meeting halfway through Gove’s pitch, saying everyone was being “too British” and polite.
Gove instead fielded a number of policy questions, according to a friend, including on agriculture and on "people falling behind" in Britain. “No one mentioned Boris,” the friend said. “Michael was energetic, articulate, and didn’t hesitate on any question."
The justice secretary did, however, attempt to make light of the situation with a dig at MP Ben Wallace, a key Johnson backer who wrote an article in The Telegraph about how Gove had "an emotional need to gossip, particularly when drink is taken".
Gove joked about going to watch Queen Park Rangers with Dominic Cummings, his controversial aide, saying: “I’m not sure whether Ben Wallace wants to pick up the drinks tab."
Ex-minister Liam Fox was next up. One MP said he spoke for 10 minutes and answered questions for five, rather than the other way round, as the other candidates did. "Everyone was very polite,” they said. Asked how it went, Fox told reporters: “Well, I enjoyed it."
Then it was home secretary Theresa May’s turn. She was greeted with loud banging of desks and even the banging of windows on the door – leading to two police officers dashing over to check they weren’t smashed.
May kicked off by directly addressing concerns over whether EU migrants would be allowed to stay in the UK after Brexit. Unlike other candidates, she has so far failed to confirm that they will be allowed to keep living and working in Britain once the country leaves the EU.
She again made clear to MPs this was a negotiation and that millions of Britons lived in other EU countries, one of her backers told journalists. “We’ve got to make sure they’re protected, it’s a very sensible plan of action,” he said. "There’s no silver bullet to these things – it’s about having a very logical approach, we’re in a negotiation."
May also made clear there wouldn't be a general election before 2020, because the Tories had a mandate for five years and there was a lot to deliver.
There was loud laughter at one point when Tory MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown asked her how she would balance the economy between tax, spend, and the deficit. “Thank you Geoffrey, there’s always one!” she replied.
Next up was work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb. He told MPs he wanted to make sure the Tories were delivering for the people, especially on housing. He also pointed out that most people under 35 could not afford their own home.
He warned there were “tough negotiations” to be had on the EU – but, underlining his contrast with May, said migrants already here should automatically get the right to stay in the UK. He warned against using people as “bargaining chips” and, according to one MP, said it would be “immoral” to do this.
“I would say as a result of that performance, he’s able to pick up people who were thinking of voting for other candidates," a friend of Crabb's said.