THE “black ops” have begun as the right of the Conservative Party appear rattled by the early momentum of Penny Mordaunt in the race for Downing Street.

Enter stage right, Lord Frost, the ex-chief Brexit negotiator, wielding his metaphorical dagger and declaring people “need to know the facts” about the Trade Minister.

Frost claimed that when Mordaunt was part of his Brexit team she did “not master the detail,” was “not fully accountable…not always visible,” and so he asked the PM to “move her on”.

Interestingly, Simon Clarke, the Treasury Chief Secretary, a keen Liz Truss supporter, seized on the peer’s comments, saying: “Lord Frost’s warning is a really serious one. Conservatives – and, far more importantly, our country – need a leader who is tested and ready.”

By coincidence, in her pitch, Truss said she was “ready to be Prime Minister from day one” while the Daily Mail, backing the Foreign Secretary, stressed how she had “distinguished herself” in office while pointing out fellow right-wingers, ex-Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch and Attorney General Suella Braverman, were “almost entirely untested”.

As the contest enters the sharp end, one campaign adviser told the Politico website: “Things are getting really nasty. You’ve got MPs who are terrible people; they are so vain and venal. The only thing they care about more than ambition for themselves is destroying the people they dislike.”

David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, and a Mordaunt supporter, noted: “I wouldn’t describe it as friendly fire; it’s absolutely clockwork…Somebody gets ahead and looks to be the real challenger and then the black op starts, the incoming fire starts.”

The fear on the right is that none of its candidates might make it into the run-off. After yesterday’s second round, when Braverman was eliminated, the Truss camp will be eagerly seeking her backers’ support, pushing their candidate as the prime right-wing standard-bearer.

This weekend could prove key as the remaining contenders are quizzed in two TV debates, one tonight on Channel 4 and one on Sunday night on ITV.

The third round of voting takes place on Monday and will come as Boris Johnson is expected to lead the Government’s own confidence vote in itself. It could be the PM’s last tub-thumping hurrah as he sinks below the Westminster water-line all guns blazing.

In her PM4PM pitch, Mordaunt, a former Defence Secretary, pledged to return to traditional Conservative values of “low tax, small state and personal responsibility” and claimed – without any real justification – that she was the candidate “Labour fear the most”.

But it was a snap poll of Tory members that unnerved the Right as it put Mordaunt in the lead with a 27% positive rating, well ahead of Sunak and Truss. Indeed, the survey suggested the Portsmouth MP would beat all other candidates in a run-off, even the ex-Chancellor by an embarrassingly large margin of 67% to 28%.

Not surprisingly, Mordaunt is the bookies’ favourite. Yesterday, she increased her vote the most, bringing it to 83, still behind Sunak on 101 but ahead of Truss on 64. Badenoch rose to 49 but Tom Tugendhat lost five to 32 and looks likely to be the next one for the chop.

After his elimination in the first round, Jeremy Hunt, England’s ex-Health Secretary, had some wise words for the surviving candidates, tweeting: “Smears & attacks may bring short-term tactical gain but always backfire long term. The nation is watching & they’ve had enough of our drama; be the broad church & unbeatable, election winning machine that our country deserves.” Clearly, some people are not heeding his advice.

The right’s early focus on stopping Sunak has now switched to stopping Mordaunt.

As with all the candidates, the ex-Chancellor has promised tax cuts but made clear he wants to introduce them responsibly, that is, once inflation is under control.

Sunak described this approach as “common-sense Thatcherism,” which won’t go down well with many Scottish voters but for the moment his focus is not on the public but on Tory MPs and on party members, who will ultimately determine who wears the Conservative crown.

Given the Yorkshire MP’s lead, the contest looks increasingly like one for that second run-off spot.

Sunak’s campaign team seems to have a New Labour missionary zeal with suggestions its members have been working every day from just before 6am to after 11 pm. This dedication to the cause might come in handy at the General Election; if Sunak wins.

As Mordaunt’s detractors get increasingly jittery, there is a chance that wokery could play more of a part in the latter stages, given the former Defence Secretary’s apparent about-turn on the issue of trans rights.

Having previously said that she believed trans-women were women, she quipped this week: “It was Margaret Thatcher who said: ‘Every prime minister needs a Willie.’ A woman like me doesn’t have one.”

Just to add spice to the Conservative drama, Nicola Sturgeon popped up with her Government’s second paper on Scottish independence, saying that offering this choice was “essential” given how it was virtually certain the next Tory leader would mean a “shift even further to the Right,” which would take Westminster “even further away from the mainstream of Scottish opinion and values”. For Scottish Conservatives, in particular, they will hope their new leader couldn’t be as bad as the outgoing one. Could they?

If elections are all about the poetry of promises, optimism and vision, government is all about the prose of hard graft, good judgement and delivery. While reinventing the governing party in mid-term is never easy, the new PM could have something of a honeymoon period - however short - and enjoy one key advantage: not being Boris Johnson.

Mordaunt as a teenager worked as a magician’s assistant to help pay her way through her studies.

Come September 5, we will see if she has been able to conjure up some political magic, moving from a place of relative obscurity to being at the helm of the mother-ship. It would be quite a journey.