General election: Possible future Tory leader Penny Mordaunt indulges in some political 'flirting ' with a swaggering Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage couldn't have hoped for better news as he strode on to the stage to debate on TV against Penny Mordaunt, Angela Rayner and rivals from the smaller opposition parties.

The dramatic news his Reform UK party has overtaken the Conservatives in the latest YouGov poll, on 19% to the Tories' 18%, meant he had his trademark letter box grin on his face for virtually the whole debate.

He began by declaring in his opening remarks: "We are now the opposition to Labour."

Election latest as Reform UK overtakes Tories in poll

And he ended by boasting: "I have the courage to take on the mob. Please join the revolt."

Throughout the debate, Mr Farage had a jaunty swagger about him.

He laughed and scoffed at the anti-Brexit SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, who was standing next to him, and appeared to relish being in a minority of one against the other smaller parties on Brexit and immigration.

The other story of this debate was round two of the bruising battle between Penny Mordaunt and Angela Rayner over Labour's tax plans, while Ms Mordaunt conspicuously left Mr Farage alone and even engaged in some political flirting with him.

Why could that possibly have been?

The Commons leader was relentless in her tax onslaught on Labour, from start to finish.

But Labour's deputy leader stood her ground and resolutely stuck to the Starmer-Reeves script, even when Ms Mordaunt issued a direct challenge on whether Labour would raise capital gains tax.

It was not in the Labour manifesto, Ms Rayner insisted, repeating Sir Keir's mantra from earlier in the day.

That wasn't a no, then, Ms Mordaunt replied.

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Once again, as in last week's first TV clash between the pair, in her tax attack on Labour she was like a stuck record - but it may stick.

But while Ms Mordaunt tore into Ms Rayner relentlessly, she uttered not a word of criticism of Mr Farage.

It looked like an indication the Tories are terrified of him and the party leadership may eventually buckle and do a deal with him before 4 July.

When it was her turn to ask an opponent a question, after Ms Mordaunt had challenged her on capital gains tax, Labour's deputy leader tackled her: "Would you welcome Nigel Farage into the Conservative Party?"

It was a firecracker of a question and one the Tory cabinet minister answered so deftly and equivocally that she appeared to be engaging in cosying up to the Reform UK leader - politically speaking, of course - rather than giving him the cold shoulder.

She told the audience that like Mr Farage she was a Brexiteer and she believed that if you couldn't reform European institutions you should be prepared to leave them. Oh!

That, of course, was a reference to quitting the European Convention of Human Rights, which Tory right-wingers are demanding, and a clear courting of support from Tory MPs in a future leadership bid.

Shameless, her Tory critics will complain.

But then she declared: "Nigel is a Labour enabler."

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Yes, that's the official Tory line, but it wasn't exactly a savage put-down. Note, too, that she called him "Nigel" and not Mr Farage.

Never has a rebuff been delivered with such good grace. She's on leadership manoeuvres, make no mistake.

Just like last week, when she said Rishi Sunak was "completely wrong" to leave the D-Day ceremony in Normandy early.

In a peroration towards the end, Mr Farage dismissed Labour and the Conservatives as "mushy SDP parties in the middle", condemned the House of Lords as "an abomination" and a "complete disgrace", because it's full of party donors and backed electoral reform.

It was his night, thanks to the opinion poll.

The battle for Number 10 may be a fight between the Conservatives and Labour.

But the Tories' war with Reform UK is a fight to the death over the future of the centre-right in British politics.

And, if Mr Farage is correct, it's a battle to become the official opposition to a Labour government after the election on 4 July.