Theresa May's most senior allies went to war against Andrea Leadsom in retaliation for her "vile" suggestion that Britain's Home Secretary should not become prime minister because she has no children.
The Energy Minister's critics included some of the Conservative Party's most senior women after she suggested she had a greater "stake" in Britain's future than her childless rival.
Leadsom insisted she was "disgusted" with the way that her comments had been presented, following a newspaper interview, and said she did not want the issue of children to be a feature of the campaign.
However, ministers backing May's campaign broadened their attack, saying she lacked the experience required to be prime minister, would divide the country, damage the economy, and be a Tory version of Labour's Jeremy Corbyn if she became leader.
On a day of anger and recriminations in the party leadership campaign:
- Anna Soubry, the Business Minister, called on Leadsom to quit the leadership contest, saying she was clearly not "PM material", adding it would "do us all a favour including herself";
- Priti Patel, the Employment Minister who campaigned alongside Leadsom in the Brexit campaign, said her fellow Tory would be too divisive to win a general election. She told the Sunday Telegraph that Leadsom's failure to win the support of Tory MPs meant the party could suffer the fate as Labour under Corbyn;
- Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who clashed with Leadsom during a televised referendum debate last month, said: "I am childless. I have nieces and nephews. I believe I - like everybody else - have a very real stake in our country";
- Therese Coffey, another minister who counts herself among Leadsom's friends, said: "I don't think it matters whether somebody has children";
- Sir Alan Duncan, a former minister, who was at Oxford University with May, tweeted: "I'm gay and in a civil partnership. No children, but 10 nieces and nephews. Do I not have a stake in the future of the country? Vile";
- Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, said most of his international counterparts had "never heard of Andrea Leadsom". Hammond, who is supporting May, called on Leadsom to sign up to a pledge for a "clean" leadership campaign;
- David Gauke, the Treasury Minister, said that Leadsom had adopted three different positions in the space of one week over the issue of when she would begin the formal process of pulling Britain out of the EU.He warned this was fuelling "uncertainty and instability" in the economy and adding to market volatility.
Gauke said Leadsom's comments about May's childlessness was "clumsy" rather than calculated. "But nonetheless it did betray a great deal of inexperience and a lack of tact and crassness that you wouldn't look for from a prime minister," he said.
WHAT SHE SAID
"I don't really know Theresa very well. But I am sure she will be really, 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. You know, she possibly has nieces, nephews, you know, lots of people, but I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next."
- Andrea Leadsom to the Times. An audio of the transcript was aired on the BBC.
May and Leadsom are competing to be elected the next Conservative leader and will appear alongside each other at hustings over the northern summer.
Whichever candidate can win the most votes from the party's 150,000 members will become Britain's second female prime minister.
May has the overwhelming backing of MPs but Leadsom's traditional, Christian values are said to be popular with members.
The row erupted after a newspaper interview in which Leadsom suggested that being a mother meant she had a particularly strong "stake" in the future of the country, unlike May.
The Home Secretary has previously spoken about how she and husband Philip were affected by being unable to have children.
Leadsom told the Times: "Genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake."
Leadsom's team have complained about the reports. She strongly rejected the presentation of her comments as an attack on May's suitability to become prime minister.
In a statement read out outside her home in Northamptonshire, Leadsom said: "I was repeatedly asked about my children and I repeatedly made it clear that I did not want this to be a feature of the campaign.
"I am disgusted at the way this has been presented. I want to be crystal clear that everyone has an equal stake in our society and the future of our country."
However, a transcript of the interview released by the newspaper appeared to show the Energy Minister comparing her own status as a mother with May's childlessness.
It said: "I am sure Theresa 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 part of what happens next."
Penny Mordaunt, the Armed Forces minister who is backing the Energy Minister's campaign, said the row was an attempt to "smear" Leadsom.
"Andrea's first thoughts will be with Theresa in this matter, it's a horrible thing to have happened to both candidates," she said.
"But we have got to now raise our game and actually give a proper contest to the country."
The Home Secretary has previously urged her rival to sign a pledge committing to a clean campaign.
May said she likes to keep her "personal life personal" but added that she and her husband had "dealt with" the fact they could not have children and "moved on".
"I hope nobody would think that mattered," she said.