Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak speaking at a hustings event at the Pavilion conference centre at Elland Road in Leeds. (Photo: PA via Getty)
The spectre of Boris Johnson loomed over the first official Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss hustings with Tory members – with the grassroots still seemingly on his side despite being ousted as prime minister by his own MPs.
In the first of 12 town hall-style sessions for the party faithful to quiz the final two candidates before voting for the next Conservative party leader and prime minister, parts of the audience clapped when the host mentioned support for Johnson to be included on the ballot.
Sunak was later told by an audience member that many people thought he “stabbed (Johnson) in the back” by resigning as chancellor – while Truss received a round of applause after outlining her loyalty to the outgoing PM.
Around 14,000 Conservative members are reported to have signed a petition demanding a vote on whether Johnson’s resignation should be accepted.
It has been organised by Tory donor and peer Lord Cruddas, who said the PM had told him over lunch at Chequers that he wanted to remain in the job and lead the party into the next election.
Hosting the event in Leeds, LBC presenter Nick Ferrari referenced the reports, pausing as clapping and some cheers were audible from some in the audience.
Asked what he would say to those members, Sunak said: “I’d say to them that I think close to 60 people resigned in parliament and it’s incumbent on the prime minister to have the confidence of the parliamentary party, and that wasn’t there at the end.
“So whether he’s on the ballot or not, ultimately you need to be able to command the confidence of your MPs in parliament, and we got to a point where close to 60 of them had resigned from government.”
During questions from the audience, Matthew from West Yorkshire was applauded after he called out Sunak’s part in Johnson’s downfall.
He said: “Rishi Sunak, you’re a good salesman and you have many strong attributes but many people continue to support Boris Johnson who has delivered consistently through treacherous waters.
“Boris Johnson has delivered consistently through treacherous waters, and many people see that you have unfortunately stabbed him in the back.
“He’s the man who made you as a senior politician and some people don’t want to see that in No. 10.
“You’re going to have to take the party and the country through another general election and I’m not quite sure entirely which planet you’re on.
“How do you expect to take the party through the next general election based upon on those actions?”
Sunak replied that resigning was the right thing to do, and that he would be able to bring the party together.
When it was her turn to be grilled, Truss was met with applause when she said she had “always been a fan” of Johnson.
She said: “He delivered Brexit, he delivered the vaccine, I was proud to serve as a member of his cabinet.”
Around 200,000 members will decide who should be the next PM, with the result due on September 5.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.