PENNY Mordaunt clashed with Tory leadership rivals Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch as they challenged her record on trans issues in the first TV debate of the contest.

Appearing before a Channel 4 studio audience, Truss and Badenoch accused Mordaunt of having backed self-identification when she had responsibility for equalities issues – something she strongly denied.

The International Trade Minister said that while she had carried out a consultation of the Gender Recognition Act, she had never been in favour of self-ID.

“I can’t imagine why people are not comprehending what I say and have been regurgitating this issue for weeks and weeks,” she said.

“I’m a woman, I’m a biological woman in every cell in my body,” she said, adding that a man who had transitioned was “not the same as me”.

However, Badenoch, the former equalities minister, said she found her rival’s account difficult to accept.

“When I took over Equalities Minister in 2020, what was being pushed was self-ID. I don’t understand how that would have changed unless someone else did it. My understanding was the previous minister who had the role [Mordaunt] had wanted self-ID,” she said.

Mordaunt retorted: “That is not correct. This will all be on record.”

However, Truss, who also had responsibility for equalities alongside her role as Foreign Secretary, said there had been a plan to move forward on self-ID.

She said: “I believe in women’s rights. I also believe that transgender [people] should be treated with respect, so I changed the outcome so we made the programme simpler and kinder, but not move ahead with self-ID.”

“I take it as a big fat compliment that nobody wants to run against me,” Mordaunt retorted.

There were further clashes over tax, as former Chancellor Rishi Sunak defended his record in the Treasury as he attacked Mordaunt and Truss over their promised cuts.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that having watched the first 10 minutes of the Channel 4 debate, that her previous tweet “Good of Tories to help make the case for independence #indyref2” still stood.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford MP said: “The Tory-made cost of living crisis has seen energy bills soar with huge hikes still to come, yet tonight has proven not a single candidate has the radical thinking to tackle the cost of living crisis now.

The National: SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday July 6, 2022. PA Photo.  Photo credit should read: House of Commons/PA Wire.

“The future of the UK is already written: unanimous support for the economic catastrophe that is Brexit, the continuation of a decade of cruel Tory austerity and cuts to the green energy sector in the shadow of COP26.”

Blackford added: “But with the full powers of independence, Scotland can escape Westminster control and consign Tory governments to the dustbin of history for good.”

Further televised clashes will take place on Sunday and Tuesday, ahead of the next round of voting on Monday.

Allies of Truss have denied involvement in a “black ops” campaign against Mordaunt. The Foreign Secretary is bidding to consolidate and increase support from the right of the Conservative Party in the leadership contest in the face of a surge by the trade minister.

Mordaunt claims to be unfazed by rivals’ attacks, suggesting other candidates are trying to stop her getting into the final two to avoid facing her in the deciding vote of party members.

Transport Minister and Truss backer Wendy Morton, appearing on Times Radio yesterday morning, denied involvement in any kind of untoward campaign, after former Cabinet minister David Davis, a supporter of Mordaunt, called out “black ops” directed at her.

Morton said of Truss: “I worked with her at the Foreign Office and I saw first hand how hard working she is, how dedicated she is, and how she just gets on with the job and she delivers.”