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The Race to Replace Boris: All To Play For by Harrison Pitt

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The Race to Replace Boris: All To Play For

Rather unsurprisingly, Tom Tugendhat is the latest contender to be eliminated from the Conservative leadership race. The MP for Tonbridge and Malling has done a lot to raise his profile in recent weeks, even proving popular with a good chunk of the public for his performances in the televised debates, but he was widely expected to come in last in the most recent round of voting. Despite losing out on this occasion, by fighting a decent campaign Tugendhat may have earned himself a position in the next cabinet—ministerial experience being something he has never enjoyed.

Rishi Sunak remains in the lead with 115 votes from Conservative MPs. Indeed, it would require a black-swan-level event for the former Chancellor not to make the final two. The question is whom he will face when the matter is put to ordinary Conservative members. Trailing Sunak at the moment are Penny Mordaunt (82 votes), Liz Truss (71), and Kemi Badenoch (58). Still, there is no guarantee that either Mordaunt or Truss will make it to the final round. 

If anything, the momentum candidate is Badenoch. Truss, after all, had been expecting a significant boost after Suella Braverman, knocked out of the contest on Thursday 14th, announced publicly that she now backs the current Foreign Secretary. Braverman was the favourite candidate of most within the European Research Group (ERG)—the pro-Brexit faction on the Right of the Conservative Party. Following this endorsement, most pundits predicted that Truss would hoover up Braverman’s spare 27 votes, most of them drawn from solid Brexiteers, and perhaps even overtake Mordaunt. 

As it happened, Truss managed an increase of only 7 votes. Meanwhile, Badenoch achieved an extra 9 votes, despite being something of an outsider. She remains unlikely to reach the final two. In fact, it could be all over for Badenoch tomorrow afternoon. But she will hope that at least some of the 31 who favoured Tugendhat might be persuaded to join the ranks of #BackingBadenoch. After all, Tugendhat had been campaigning as the “clean start” candidate, not having served in the current (very unpopular) government. While Badenoch played a ministerial role in Boris Johnson’s team, she was fairly junior, she resigned as a matter of principle after the Pincher affair, and she has plausibly presented herself as a fresh face. The most recent ConHome polling revealed that Badenoch—a long-time Brexiteer, an anti-woke culture warrior, and sceptical of Net Zero—is by far the most popular of all the candidates among ordinary Conservative members. If she can fight her way into the run-off, Badenoch will be the bookmakers’ favourite. Unfortunately, her lack of experience means she is unlikely to win further support from enough MPs.

Mordaunt, however, is dropping off badly. Her campaign has been dogged by allegations, supported by documents published in the Sunday Times, that as the minister for women and equalities in 2018 Mordaunt supported self-identification for transgender individuals—a proposal later scrapped on the grounds that a person should be medically diagnosed with ‘gender dysphoria’ before being legally entitled to change gender. Mordaunt denies the allegations, dismissing them as “smears” calculated to jeopardise her bid for 10 Downing Street. Mordaunt’s critics respond that they have every right to scrutinise her record. Either way, the attacks had a clear impact. Having topped ConHome polling just a week ago, Mordaunt has now fallen to third place. In the recent round of voting, she even lost a vote. Could her campaign be about to slow, stall, or even implode? If so, it will be all to play for between Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch—two women frantically seeking to unite the right-wing of the party behind them. 

Things will become clearer after the next round of voting concludes later this afternoon. Where will Tugendhat’s backers go? Will MPs’ support for Mordaunt dry up as her dwindling popularity among the Conservative grassroots becomes apparent? Will Badenoch make further gains on Truss, who—with the support of Suella Braverman, Lord Frost, and Jacob Rees-Mogg—currently leads the Right of the party? 

Most intriguing of all, might we begin to see Sunak engage in some Machiavellian vote-engineering? He knows that he would most likely lose to either Truss or Badenoch if the decision went to members. It would therefore be in Sunak’s interest for both darlings of the Right to find themselves eliminated. That way, he can face Mordaunt—the more beatable candidate, according to polls, though by no means an easy rival.

Since Sunak already enjoys a comfortable lead among MPs, with 115 backers, it is not inconceivable that he may deliberately donate some of his own supporters to Mordaunt and thereby carry her over the line. Such a move would provoke uproar among the wider membership. Most ordinary Tories would feel cheated, denied a proper contest, by such a stitch-up. Nevertheless, the former Chancellor may calculate that, in the end, back-room electioneering is his only plausible route to victory. 

Assuming a shenanigan-free contest, the most likely outcome is a two-horse race between Sunak and Truss. My prediction is that Badenoch will be eliminated today. She will then endorse Truss and successfully encourage the rest of the Right of the party to do likewise. Mordaunt should then be comfortably overtaken by an invigorated Truss campaign, now boasting Badenoch’s former supporters as well as their own. 

Still, Tory leadership races are anything but predictable. The results of the coming round of votes will be announced at 4pm today. 

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.