Iain Duncan Smith claims 'black ops' bid to 'denigrate' Leadsom
Tory leadership contender Andrea Leadsom faces a "'black ops' operation to denigrate her reputation", former leader Iain Duncan Smith has said.
Mr Duncan Smith told ITV she was qualified to be the next PM amid claims the junior minister lacks experience.
It follows a row over an interview she gave to the Times headlined "Being a mother gives me the edge on May".
Mr Duncan Smith said she was mortified at the way it was presented - critics say it shows she is "not PM material".
It comes as Mrs Leadsom published her tax return for 2014-15, showing she paid £22,621 in tax on total income of £83,930 but also recorded a tax-free capital gain of £9,270. Her rival, Theresa May, has already published her tax details over four years.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times said some 20 MPs are ready to form a breakaway party if Mrs Leadsom is elected as leader over Home Secretary Theresa May, and reported that some of Mrs Leadsom's colleagues have called on her to stand down from the leadership race.
Asked about the story on ITV's Peston on Sunday, former Work and Pensions Secretary Mr Duncan Smith urged them to "calm down" and suggested people would "come to regret some of the silliest things they say".
Mr Duncan Smith, who was Conservative leader from 2001 to 2003, said: "I've seen it all before - the reality is that both of them are qualified.
"Look, if Andrea was so unqualified to be prime minister, and you know we've had a lot of sniping, a kind of real 'black-ops' operation to denigrate her reputation. If she was so bad what in heaven's sake would the prime minister be doing making her a serious government minister?"
Meanwhile Mrs Leadsom's campaign manager, Tim Loughton, said: "The establishment seem to be 'getting Andrea', it's all about 'let's gang up on Andrea'."
The Conservative MP, who is also godfather to Mrs Leadsom's eldest son, said Mrs Leadsom had made it "absolutely clear" in her interview with the Times that she had not intended "her passion for her family and her children to be taken in any way derogatory towards Theresa" and she had mentioned it because her family was "what fires her up".
He denied suggestions that Mrs Leadsom was part of a movement by the traditional Conservative right to take back the party from the Cameron modernisers: "There is nothing traditional about Andrea in this respect. This is not about trying to take back control of the Conservative Party. This is a fresh candidate who has much more experience outside politics than all the other candidates put together."
Former shadow home secretary David Davis told the BBC: "I don't think I can see malice in this last incident, the so called mother-gate thing. But inexperience. Inexperience in her response to that, inexperience in her proposals to trigger article 50 the moment she wins, if she were to win.
"There are lots and lots of things that she's done in the first week or two which show really she's not got the experience. I mean she's a junior minister at the moment and she's leaping to the most difficult job in government at the most difficult time in our history."
But Energy Minister Mrs Leadsom - who campaigned for a Leave vote in the EU referendum - has won the backing of outgoing UKIP leader Nigel Farage and the head of the Leave.EU campaign, businessman Arron Banks.
Mr Farage told the Mail on Sunday said: "Mrs Leadsom may lack cabinet experience, but I can attest to the fact that she has the guts."
And Mr Banks told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show that if Mrs May, who supported a Remain vote in the referendum, won the leadership race, it would result in "the death of Brexit by a thousand cuts" and predicted UKIP would be "back with a vengeance".
Mrs Leadsom has said she is "no Ukip sympathiser" and told The Times: "They don't advise me, I don't know them, I've never even met Arron Banks."
Chris Grayling, who like Mrs Leadsom campaigned for a Leave vote in the referendum campaign, but is backing Mrs May, told the BBC's Sunday Politics: "The key thing now is having the right person for the job."
"I have known Theresa May for a very long time. She's a very determined politician. I know that having got a mandate from the public to deliver Brexit, she will do that. I wouldn't be supporting her if that wasn't the case," he said.