THE political heat is on and the fear for Liz Truss’s loyal supporters is that the chances of her becoming prime minister number 56 are beginning to melt away. Desperation is beginning to follow.

In Friday’s Channel Four TV debate, Rishi Sunak came across as the most polished, Tom “clean face” Tugendhat the most relaxed and open, Kemi Badenoch the most analytical, Penny Mordaunt the most long-winded and Truss – who emulated Margaret Thatcher in her choice of dress - the most strident…and so the least convincing.

A post-debate poll put Tugendhat, the only candidate not to have served in Boris Johnson’s administration, as the clear winner with 36% of viewers saying he had performed best. Sunak was on 25%, Mordaunt and Badenoch both on 12 and Truss way behind on 6.

The Foreign Secretary’s staunch ally in her bid to win the Conservative crown for the Right, the Daily Mail, is trying to kill off Mordaunt’s chances the best it can with disparaging articles and headlines such as: “I like Penny but…”

Yesterday, the tabloid turned up the thermostat, screaming how Truss was offering families a tax-break of up to £2,500, having already announced a “tax-cutting bonanza” of more than £30bn with the scrapping of the National Insurance rise, green levies on energy bills and the planned Corporation Tax on company profits.

It’s the politician’s strategy of last resort: when in a hole, throw money at people. But voters can recognise desperation when they see it. And it’s not attractive.

Tax, of course, was one of the flashpoints in the TV debate with Truss suggesting she would borrow more and pay off the “Covid debt” over a longer period. But Sunak dismissed such “fairy-tale” economics and insisted the NICs rise was needed to keep the health and social care system afloat.

He argued launching an “unfunded spree of borrowing” would make inflation worse. Yesterday on a visit to Teesside, where he secured the backing of regional mayor Ben Houchen, the ex-Chancellor again made clear “getting a grip of inflation” was his “number one economic priority”. Once that was done, he would implement tax cuts.

Reducing taxes and having a smaller state is, after all, at the heart of Conservatism. So, the recent OBR report on public services would have sent shudders down Tory spines.

The UK Government’s economic forecaster calculated the Johnson administration had already spent as much this year – 1.25% of GDP – to help households cope with the cost-of-living squeeze as it did supporting the economy through the financial crisis.

It predicted debt could rise from its current rate of 96% of GDP to over 100% by 2052/53 and then - are you ready - 267% in 2072/73 if upward pressures on health, pensions and social care spending, and the loss of motoring taxes, are factored in.

Not only that but the OBR warned debt could jump by nearly 320% in 50 years’ time with future shocks taken into account and without fiscal policy being tightened.

It argued bringing debt back down to 75% of GDP – where it was in the Government’s pre-pandemic March 2020 Budget - “would need taxes to rise, spending to fall, or a combination of both”.

None of the candidates mentioned the OBR report during the TV debate. Funny that.

It’s clear Truss has to perform better in tonight’s TV debate than she did on Friday. The elimination of Suella Braverman, the right-wing Attorney General for England, will probably mean the Foreign Secretary will pick up a good number of her votes in Monday’s third round. Indeed, she could close the gap on Mordaunt and stem her melting fortunes.

If Tugendhat again performs well tonight, then it could be Badenoch who gets the chop tomorrow.

One ex-parliamentarian suggested if Mordaunt made the run-off, and given her majority support among the 150,000 or so party members, Sunak could concede before beginning a six-week summer grassroots’ campaign. This would mean that the Trade Minister would be PM by Wednesday and even take PMQs.

But if a week is a long time in politics, six weeks is an eternity. However much polls put Mordaunt as the membership’s sweetheart, the ex-Chancellor will believe his “honesty” about the economic reality and his solution to get through it, will win people over.

The problem Sunak will have if he wins, is the group of vengeful ex-ministers, who regard him as Johnson’s political assassin and who won’t be able to resist doing their best to undermine his premiership.

Tonight, the contenders for the Conservative crown will happily reconvene before the TV cameras as the political mercury rises further before the next leadership vote tomorrow.

There will be a deal of nervousness in the various camps about what negative headlines will appear in today’s Sunday newspapers aimed at rattling skeletons, real or imaginary.

A key thing for Tory members to consider is which candidate would Labour most want as the Conservative leader. Opposition sources have said clearly: “Truss.”

Other than winning a general election, there is nothing quite as sweet in politics for a party leader as seeing your enemy tearing itself apart in public.

The spectacle of bitter blue-on-blue rivalry must warm the cockles of Keir Starmer’s heart as he knows from good experience that divided parties do not win elections.

The Labour Party leader can sit back in his comfortable Camden armchair, eat his popcorn and enjoy the Conservative reality show unfold but he also knows he can’t just rely on Tories “scratching their eyes out” to get him into Downing St.

“Captain crasheroony snoozefest,” as Johnson lovingly called the Labour knight during PMQs, must create a raft of credible and coherent policies while portraying himself and his party as the more competent and united alternative.

Otherwise, against all the odds, the Conservatives under their newly-minted leader could squeeze back through the famous black door and consign the comrades to another long decade of languishing in the political wilderness. And, if that happened, we all know who would claim the credit.