TORY leadership hopeful Andrea Leadsom was yesterday accused of “disgusting” behaviour and urged to sign a clean campaign pledge after highlighting her rival’s childlessness.

The pro-Brexit energy minister said motherhood had given her a “very real stake” in the future of the country, contrasting her position with that of Home Secretary Theresa May, who last week revealed that she and her husband Philip had not been able to have children.

In an interview with The Times which raised fresh questions about her judgment, Leadsom, who has two sons and a daughter, said: “I don’t know Theresa well but I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children, so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.

“But genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

“She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a piece of what comes next.”

May said of her and her husband’s situation last week: “Of course we were both affected by it. You see friends who now have grown-up children, but you accept the hand that life deals you.”

Leadsom’s comments provoked an immediate backlash, with Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who is supporting May, saying there was “gulf in class” between the candidates.

She tweeted: “I am childless. I have nieces and nephews. I believe I - like everyone else - have a very real issue in our country.”

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson added: “No matter what the trouble my party is in, this is disgusting.

"Leadsom should not be our Prime Minister.”

Bookmakers immediately shortened the odds on May becoming the next PM, with Ladbrokes offering 10/1 that Leadsom would pull out the race by the end of the month.

Leadsom and her supporters claimed she had been smeared and accused The Times of “gutter journalism”.

But the paper hit back and released an audio recording and transcript backing up its report.

Confronted with the evidence of Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, Leadsom supporter Penny Mordaunt, the armed forces minister, said: “I’m afraid this is an attempt, I think, by a paper that has declared for the other candidate to smear Andrea.”

Leadsom later made a statement outside her home in Northamptonshire, saying she had “repeatedly made clear” to The Times reporter that she did not want her children to be a feature of the campaign and said she was and was “disgusted at the way this has been presented”.

She added: “I want to be crystal clear that everyone has an equal stake in our society and in the future of our country. That is what I believe and it is what I have always believed.”

Speaking on the fringes of a Nato meeting in Poland, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, another May supporter, said Tory members didn’t want “a slanging match or backstabbing”.

He said: “Theresa May has been clear she wants this to be a clean campaign on the issues, not around personalities, but around capabilities and policies.

“She signed the clean campaign pledge. I would urge Leadsom to sign up... and let’s make sure the rest of this campaign is clean and openly fought on the issues.”

He added many senior foreign politicians had “never heard of Andrea Leadsom”, whereas May was “a known commodity to them and her reputation goes before her.”

May won the support of 199 of the 330 Tory MPs last week, making her the clear favourite to replace David Cameron in Downing Street once the leadership contest ends on September 9.

However the decision lies with the 150,000 Tory members, and the head of the voluntary party this weekend said MPs were in for a “wake-up call” about the strength of support for Leadsom.

Steve Bell, president of the party’s National Convention, said he was “expecting” her to win.

An SNP spokesman said: “While the two remaining Tory contenders to become the next Prime Minister are locked in a bitter scrap over who can drag the UK furthest to the right, the SNP is getting on with government in Scotland and working hard to secure our future within the EU.

"But in the Tory leadership battle it's becoming clear that whoever wins, Scotland loses."

It was also reported yesterday that Stephen Crabb, one of the early candidates in the Tory leadership contest, had sent sexually suggestive text messages to a younger woman.

The married Work and Pensions Secretary, a devout Christian who stood on a family values ticket, told her the “public can’t expect MPs to be angels” and last month used WhatsApp to say he wanted to kiss her “everywhere” and referred to a sex act he wanted to perform.