It was a measure of his party’s exasperation with Boris Johnson that he was forced to resign before there was anything like a consensus on who should replace him. So Britain’s Conservative Party is now engaged in the search for a new leader, who will duly become prime minister.
A series of votes among Conservative MPs whittle the field down to two, who then contest a postal ballot by the party membership. Of the eight names who had some support in the betting market when we last looked at this, two – former health secretary Sajid Javid and defence secretary Ben Wallace – ended up not being candidates, but two outsiders joined the field instead: former local government minister Kemi Badenoch and attorney-general Suella Braverman.
Two rounds of voting last week have now reduced those eight down to five, and for practical purposes down to four. Tom Tugendhat, who came fifth in the second ballot, will certainly be eliminated in the next one; as the only anti-Brexiter in the field, his capacity to pick up votes is negligible (he actually went backwards in the last round).
Former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, who (with Javid) started the ball rolling for Johnson’s demise, led the second round with 101 votes. He was followed by junior trade minister Penny Mordaunt on 83, foreign secretary Liz Truss on 64 and Badenoch on 49. With 27 votes from Braverman and 32 from Tugendhat to be distributed, the race for the top two is wide open.
All four are, broadly speaking, from the party’s right wing. Sunak, however, is an economic liberal rather than a culture warrior, and has alienated much of the right by his role in bringing down Johnson. His strength among MPs is thought not to be matched by grassroots support; a YouGov poll of party members last week has him losing badly to each of the other three: 49-40 to Badenoch, 59-35 to Truss and a remarkable 67-28 to Mordaunt.
Truss and Badenoch represent the hard right. Truss’s strategy has been to unite the most fanatically pro-Brexit wing of the party behind her, but she has been frustrated by the unexpectedly strong showing of Badenoch, whose priority is more the culture war (she is the preferred candidate for climate denialists). It seems certain that one of them will be eliminated after the fourth round of voting, but impossible to say which one.
And then there’s Mordaunt, now the favorite to win despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she is difficult to classify. She was never a Johnson supporter, and was accordingly removed from her job of defence secretary when he became leader, but nor did she join the stream of resignations earlier this month. And although she supported “leave” in the Brexit referendum she has not let that issue define her political persona, so most of the party’s anti-Brexiters (scarce as they now are) would support her ahead of Truss or Badenoch.
Tory MPs have now had the weekend to consider their options before tonight’s third round of voting, with a raft of tactical decisions to be made. If Sunak’s supporters decide that he can’t win the members’ ballot, will they switch to Mordaunt rather than risk her being knocked out by Truss or Badenoch? Conversely, if Mordaunt’s camp thinks it has some votes to spare, will it throw some to Sunak to keep him in the race?
There’s also the question of whether the Conservative membership, unruly beast that it is, is yet ready for a non-white leader (Sunak and Badenoch are of Indian and Nigerian descent respectively). The display of diversity is already impressive, with only two white males among the eight candidates,* but it’s possible that the MPs have gotten ahead of their party in that respect.
Whichever way it plays out, the party faces an uncertain future. Recent opinion polls have it trailing Labour by about ten points – a position that’s even worse than it looks because of Labour’s much improved relationship with the Liberal Democrats. All the leadership contenders (and especially the two with serious momentum, namely Mordaunt and Badenoch) are relatively young and low-profile: the winner is likely to face a steep learning curve.
* And one of those (Tugendhat) has both a French wife and a Jewish grandfather, not the best fit with traditional Toryism.
UPDATE 5am Tuesday (London time): The third round of voting, following the elimination of Braverman, is now complete. It was good for Sunak and Truss, bad for Mordaunt and Badenoch. Sunak picked up the most, up 14 to 115; he is now a virtual certainty to be in the top two, since he should do reasonably well out of Tugendhat’s elimination.
Truss (up seven to 71) and Badenoch (up nine to 58) both gained, but Badenoch needed to build more on her momentum than that; unless something dramatic happens, she can’t overtake Truss from there. Truss is still in third place, but she should comfortably make the top two when Badenoch is eventually eliminated.
Mordaunt, who dropped a vote to 82, is now in big trouble. She has the classic problem of the middle candidate: while she might beat either Sunak or Truss in a head-to-head contest, she is being squeezed out between them and now looks like running third. To survive she will need a strong flow of votes from Tugendhat and a lot of luck.
The betting market has now installed Sunak as favorite at about 10-9 on. Truss is at 2-1, Mordaunt 4-1 and Badenoch 12-1. I’m not convinced that the membership will do anything other than vote for the most identifiably right-wing candidate, and in a Sunak vs. Truss contest that will be Truss. Keir Starmer will be very excited at the prospect.