Newspaper headlines: BBC 'debate bias' and leadership race latest

The four remaining leadership contestants Image copyright AFP
Image caption Four will become two on Thursday, as Conservatives MPs vote in more ballots

The Conservative Party leadership race is again the main story for many of the newspapers.

The Sun says it is "Bloody Thursday" because two more rounds of voting by Conservative MPs later will whittle down the field of four contenders for prime minister to two.

The paper is not alone in suggesting that the exit from the race yesterday of Rory Stewart might have involved "clandestine backers" of Boris Johnson returning home, after only supporting Mr Stewart in the previous round to knock out Dominic Raab.

One grandee tells the paper there's "game-playing" afoot to try to fix the final two. Though the MP adds that these schemes "rarely work... There really is no stupider clever electorate in the world".

The Guardian also suggests that Mr Johnson's "operatives" may already have used tactical voting to knock out his Brexiteer rival, Mr Raab, on Tuesday.

The Daily Mail quotes Mr Stewart directly accusing the Johnson campaign of deploying "dark arts" to try to determine who their candidate will face in the run-off.

But the paper also reports the international development secretary conceding that he had "flopped" in Tuesday's BBC debate. "His exotic blend of Mick Jagger and Lawrence of Arabia crumbled like an Eton Mess," it adds.

The i also speaks of Tory fears that "dirty tricks" may be used by Mr Johnson's team to block Michael Gove - although it says the environment secretary is building momentum by closing the gap on Jeremy Hunt in second place.

The Daily Telegraph - in which Mr Johnson has a column - says his supporters will mount an operation today to derail the Gove campaign.

It says Mr Gove has never been forgiven for "betraying" Mr Johnson during the 2016 leadership race and "revenge is in the air". One supporter of Mr Johnson said they wanted to see his rival not just beaten - but "humiliated".

The paper suggests that votes could be "lent" to Sajid Javid to put Mr Gove out of the running.

Backers of the former foreign secretary are said to believe that Jeremy Hunt would be the easiest candidate for him to beat in a head-to-head contest, and want to avoid the "psycho-drama" of the two leaders of the Vote Leave campaign tearing at each other's throats during weeks of party hustings.

Image caption Frontrunner Boris Johnson is expected to be in the final two - but who will join him is uncertain

However, the Times columnist Jenni Russell cautions against assuming that we are watching a coronation.

If they reach the ballot of party members, she argues, Mr Gove or Mr Hunt will have a last chance to skewer Boris Johnson - and could yet emerge as prime minister. Never has coming second mattered more, she says.

The Times leads with Home Secretary Sajid Javid insisting he's staying in the contest to win it.

The paper says his rivals believe he is holding out to stake his claim to be Mr Johnson's chancellor - a claim that will be stronger if he goes down fighting.

The Financial Times suggests if Mr Javid is eliminated today, he will back the frontrunner in the hope of entering Number 11.

BBC debate faces bias accusations

A lot of anger is directed at the BBC over Tuesday's debate.

Under a headline reading "Biased Brazen Contemptible", the Daily Mail says furious MPs are calling for watchdogs to probe the BBC's handling of its Tory leadership debate.

The paper says the corporation stands accused of "flagrantly breaching its own rules on impartiality with a series of appalling blunders" - in particular, not properly vetting an anti-Israel imam or a Labour "apparatchik" who put questions to the candidates.

Both were suspended from their jobs yesterday for what the Mail calls "hugely offensive" social media messages that the BBC apparently failed to spot. The BBC defended itself over the guest who had ties to Labour, saying a background in politics does not disqualify anyone from taking part in a debate show. It said the tweets from the imam were not seen during the vetting because the account had been deactivated.

Image caption The candidates answered questions set by members of the public

The Daily Express quotes Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg as saying the programme had made the corporation look "not only biased but incompetent".

The Daily Star piles in with "shame of the BBC", while the Sun gives the broadcaster both barrels, accusing it of passing off "stooges" of Jeremy Corbyn as ordinary people asking searching questions.

The Sun adds that the "scandal" should trigger wholesale reform of what it says is the BBC's "blatant political bias".

According to the Daily Telegraph and the Times, the final two contenders could boycott further BBC coverage as a result - including a planned Question Time programme and one-to-one interviews.

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Meanwhile, according to the Daily Mirror, the shadow cabinet witnessed an "explosive showdown" when senior figures pressed Labour leader Mr Corbyn to give clearer support to another Brexit referendum.

The paper says Mr Corbyn is backing another vote. It suggests the Labour leader is mulling a Harold Wilson-style arrangement like in the 1975 Common Market referendum, when different wings of the party campaigned on opposing sides.

Image caption Mr Corbyn told colleagues on Wednesday it was "right to demand any deal is put to a public vote"

A number of papers report that the singer, Olivia Newton-John, is putting up for auction the black leather jacket and tight trousers she wore in the final numbers of the 1978 film, Grease - to help raise money for her cancer treatment centre in Australia.

The i says they are expected to fetch a total of up to £160,000. The headline in the Mail is: "That's The Lot That I Want!"