'Leadsom facing 'black-ops' attacks by May supporters'
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 Tory leadership rival Theresa May stepped up their criticism of Ms 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 Ms 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 that 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 Ms Leadsom becomes 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 during a leadership election.
"I've seen it all before - the reality is that both of them 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?"
He later added: "We should really be very careful about the threats and the things that we say, all of us, and conduct this in decency."
Ms Patel, who is backing Ms May's campaign, warned that Ms Leadsom could find herself unable to govern due to the lack of support from MPs, or to win an election victory by appealing to swing voters.
In an interview with the 'Sunday Telegraph' she said: "You win elections by having that broad appeal.
"Look at Labour right now, and the narrow appeal they have. We have to represent society as it is today and be a true voice for modern Britain and a positive Britain."
Ms May secured her place on the leadership ballot by securing 199 votes from MPs, with Ms Leadsom winning the support of 84 colleagues.
Ms Patel warned that a victory for Ms Leadsom could mean the process of leaving the EU would be harder to deliver, even though the energy minister backed Brexit and Ms May had supported a vote to Remain in the EU.
"We have to govern," Ms Patel said. "To govern, we have got to be able to carry the support of members of parliament. That's incredibly important. I don't need to give a re-run of what's happening with Labour right now."
Asked if Ms 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 Ms May was "on a par" with former PM Margaret Thatcher, the first female occupant of Number 10.
Ms Patel's comments came after Ms Leadsom endured a barrage of criticism after appearing to suggest that being a mother gave her an advantage over her childless rival.
Ms Leadsom said she was "disgusted" by the way her comments had been presented and insisted 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', Ms Leadsom said: "Genuinely, I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake."
Ms May 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".
He told Robert Peston: "I've been around in politics long enough to see plenty of incredibly experienced cabinet ministers and prime ministers get stitched 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."