Unusually for a political contest, the positions at the top and bottom of the vote tally were the least interesting aspect. Instead, the third round of MPs’ choices for the candidate to take over from Boris Johnson was what you might call a mid-table clash. And here, things have got very interesting indeed.
One immediate point was that Penny Mordaunt’s momentum has seemingly stalled. The trade minister, widely talked up as a potential favourite after taking second place in the initial two voting rounds, remained just behind Rishi Sunak, but with one fewer vote, down from 83 to 82.
Team Mordaunt will privately complain their candidate has faced an unprecedented tide of mud-slinging from rivals and unfriendly newspapers, with some becoming borderline obsessive in recent days. Mordaunt sceptics will point to mixed reviews of her performance in the televised debates, where she sometimes seemed fluent but oddly vague.
But, at the same time, the widely expected elimination of Tom Tugendhat brings an opportunity for Mordaunt. His support largely held up, slipping only from 32 to 31, and loyal Tom-ites would seem more naturally drawn to the only other hopeful who is both vaguely liberal – by current Conservative standards – and not overly tinged with Johnson’s government.
Sunak’s 115 votes puts the former chancellor in a virtually invulnerable position in the top two, who will be put to a ballot of Tory members. But the identity of the person he will face remains deeply uncertain, with just two more rounds of MPs’ votes to go, on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Both Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and Kemi Badenoch, the former levelling up minister, fared just about well enough to give their supporters hope. Truss put a difficult few days behind her, including debate performances viewed as somewhat wooden and a mauling from Sunak on her tax policy, to gain seven votes, putting her 11 behind Mordaunt.
This was, however, an arguably meagre haul given Suella Braverman, who was eliminated in the second round with 27 votes, had called on her backers to support Truss.
Badenoch is now in the Tugendhat position – bottom of the pile going into a new round, and seen as likely to depart next. She is only 13 votes behind Truss, but Tory amateur game theorists will realise that switching your vote from Tugendhat to Badenoch would be quite a leap, both in terms of policy and style.
Complicating this is the fact that Badenoch has momentum, presenting herself in the debates as the voice of unvarnished truth, and gaining nine MPs between rounds two and three.
Barring a slightly unexpected turn of events, however, the MPs’ ballot does seem to be shaping up into a Mordaunt v Truss scrap for second, with the stakes even higher given both are generally viewed as more in tune with the sentiments of Tory members than the more cautious, fiscally prudent Sunak.
If Badenoch goes, Truss’s views would seem more in tune with her pugnacious, culture war-infused style. However, Badenoch and Mordaunt share a status as insurgents, as outsiders who served under Johnson but not in cabinet, and would thus represent more of a fresh start to present against Sunak.
The next two days are likely to be filled with intrigue, scurrilous briefing, complaints of unfairness and a host of contradictory predictions. But we can be certain of one thing: they will not be dull.
July 19, 2022 at 11:58AM Peter Walker Political correspondent