Leadsom facing 'black-ops campaign by May allies' in battle for leadership
Andrea Leadsom is facing a 'black-ops' campaign by MPs who want to "denigrate her reputation", key supporter Iain Duncan Smith has claimed.
It comes after allies of Theresa May stepped up their criticism of Mrs Leadsom, with one senior minister suggesting she could become the Tory equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn because of her lack of support in Parliament.
Employment minister Priti Patel, who campaigned for Brexit alongside Mrs Leadsom, suggested that the energy minister lacked the experience and broad appeal to win a general election.
But former Tory leader Mr Duncan Smith insisted both candidates are capable of becoming the next prime minister and called for the Conservative Party to show decency during the campaign.
Asked about reports that some MPs are prepared to quit the party if Mrs Leadsom become Prime Minister, he told ITV's Peston on Sunday: "I have a simple comment to them, which is calm down for God's sake, this is a leadership election and I think people come to regret some of the silliest things they say.
"I've seen it all before - the reality is that both are qualified. Look, if Andrea was so unqualified to be Prime Minister, and you know we've had a lot of sniping, a kind of real 'black-ops' operation to denigrate her reputation. If she was so bad what in heaven's sake would the Prime Minister be doing making her a serious government minister?"
Mrs May secured her place on the leadership ballot by securing 199 votes from MPs, with Mrs Leadsom winning the support of 84 colleagues.
Asked if Mrs Leadsom could become a Conservative version of Mr Corbyn, Ms Patel said: "We could end up in that situation. And then it becomes very difficult to govern and deliver the programme for Leave."
She added: "Right now we need an individual with a great deal of experience. She doesn't have that just yet, not yet. She is in government - but Theresa's experience is second to none."
She added that Mrs May was "on a par" with former prime minister Mrs Thatcher, the first female occupant of Number 10.
Ms Patel's comments came after Mrs Leadsom endured a barrage of criticism after appearing to suggest that being a mother gave her an advantage over her childless rival.
Mrs Leadsom said she was "disgusted" by the way her comments had been presented and insisted that she believed "everyone has an equal stake in our society", stressing that she did not want the issue of children to be a feature of the campaign.
In an interview with The Times, Mrs Leadsom said: "Genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country."
The Home Secretary has previously spoken about how she and husband Philip were affected by being unable to have children.
Mr Duncan Smith suggested the interview was a "stitch-up" in the course of an interview.
He added: "The question really was did Andrea at any stage really believe that she was in the business of trying to contrast her family background with Theresa's and I don't believe that.
"I've talked to her, she's actually mortified about that, really genuinely mortified."