CLAMBERING UP THE GREASY POLE

HM Treasury, OGL 3 , via Wikimedia Commons

JOHN OXLEY, LONDON

🗳 Ambitious Tories are spending the weekend wooing the hinterlands and knifing each other in the back. John Oxley returns to handicap the leadership contest after the first two rounds of voting.

We’re four days in and three candidates out in the race to be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Though the voting is paused for the weekend, the candidates aren’t. They have a full schedule of hustings and three televised debates, and there’s a whole heap of backroom deals to be made. Next week, the final ballots of MPs will take place, with the five hopefuls still in the contest whittled down to the two who will face the public.

With two rounds of voting behind us, we now have some insight into how the candidates are positioning themselves and how the MPs are lining up behind them. We might not know who will win the contest, but we can start to see how it will be won.

First Round

Rishi Sunak—88

Penny Morduant—67

Liz Truss—50

Kemi Badenoch—40

Tom Tugendhat—37

Suella Braverman—32

Nadhim Zahawi—25 (ELIMINATED)

Jeremy Hunt—18 (ELIMINATED)

The first ballot largely went as expected. Sunak clinched first place, but not by an unassailable margin, which will be disappointing for his campaign. Widely deemed less popular with the rank-and-file members, he’ll want to demonstrate he has the full support of the parliamentary party when it goes to the members’ vote.

Liz Truss will also have been disappointed with this result. Running from the right of the party and boasting her Brexit credentials (despite originally voting Remain, she had a Damascene conversion in 2016), she was undermined by Badenoch and Braverman, who have leaned into conservative cultural talking points—positioning themselves as anti-woke and trying to focus the debate on their gender-critical credentials. Both will have been pleased to make it to this round, with Badenoch’s showing especially strong.

With the right split, there was room for Penny Morduant, whose campaign has tried to paint her as the sensible centrist. He tagline is a somewhat clunky “Leadership should be less about the leader, and more about the ship,” which plays up her constituency’s naval links and her own time the Royal Navy Reserves. She’ll be hoping that the right-wing block doesn’t coalesce around one of her rivals.

Tom Tugendhat made it through to the second round in her wake. He continues to emphasize his military background and his absence from Boris’s government. He promises a clean start, but may be hampered by the perception that he’s been soft on Brexit, and his seriousness has been conflated with arrogance. One Party insider tells me, “The problem with Tom’s campaign is, too many other MPs think he’s a dick.”

It wasn’t much of a surprise who was eliminated. Hunt was unable to build the support he mustered when he ran against Boris, and his new campaign felt lackluster by comparison. He crashed out at the bottom of the ballot. Nadhim Zahawi likewise struggled to establish his brand and fell below the thirty-vote cut off.

Second Round

Rishi Sunak—101

Penny Morduant—83

Liz Truss—64

Kemi Badenoch—49

Tom Tugendhat—32

Suella Braverman—27 (ELIMINATED)

The second round is where things start to get interesting.

The voting MPs have seen the candidates’ strengths. The eliminated candidates’ votes are up for grabs. Factions begin to consolidate around a champion, lest the final two become the ones you really cannot stand.

Morduant was the real winner here, picking up more new votes than anyone. It showed she’s a real contender and allowed her to keep pace with Sunak in the winning position. Sunak will be disappointed with that; he would have preferred to pick up more of the losers’ votes and become the center of a gravity as the leading candidate. Winning triple figures is a good sign, but still, less than a third of the party supported him.

Truss, too, will be disappointed. She picked up more votes than last time, but wasn’t able to steal supporters away from Badenoch. Now the right of the party is prominently fighting about who their candidate should be. Boris backers seem to be mustering behind Truss, while newer MPs seem to favor Badenoch. Badenoch is younger, more recently elected, and more attuned to the concerns of the Tory voters who are more focused on culture than the economy.

At the bottom of the pack, Tugendhat and Braverman both lost votes. The game is over for Braverman, at the bottom of the poll, while Tugendhat scraped over the thirty-vote elimination cutoff.

What next?

Braverman’s elimination throws 27 right-wing votes back into the pot. She’s now endorsed Truss, but there’s no guarantee her followers will. If all of them unite behind the Foreign Secretary, Truss would leapfrog Morduant and be in a strong position to enter the final two. Yet unless the right can unite, Truss and Badenoch might succeed only in pulling each other out of the contest.

Tom Tugendhat looks most likely to lose in the next round. If he does, his voters will probably drift to Morduant, giving her a boost from the center-left of the party. Given his showing so far, he’s probably angling for a cabinet position in the government of the candidate he ultimately supports, most likely Foreign Secretary.

This weekend broadens the contest a little. Though MPs are the only ones voting, they tend to spend their weekends in their constituencies, away from Westminster, where they get a feel for what the party wants. Likewise, the online hustings and televised debates will give them a sense of who might fare best with the party members and the wider voting public. The impression that they’ll do well will boost a candidate’s cause: No one wants to back a loser.

Within Westminster, the feeling is that Sunak will make the final two. This makes the race for second place vitally important, because all polling of party members suggests that when they vote, Sunak will lose. Having spent lavishly during the pandemic then raised taxes, his credentials as an economic conservative are shaky. His vast wealth and slick persona alienate him from cultural conservatives. He’s a man more at home in Silicon Valley than the Ribble Valley. Probably, whoever takes him on will win.

For the rest of the candidates, that means a furious race to make second place. Badenoch is showing off her relatively fresh face and taking the fight to Truss from the right, hitting all the notes in the culture war repertoire. Truss in turn is leaning into her economic bona fides, making a lot of noise (as usual) about the trade deals she secured post-Brexit and promising to slash taxes. Her critics say that her recent tax pledges would cost the Treasury £60 billion.

Will the two of them split the right wing vote, or will the right pull together behind one candidate? If Morduant pulls in most of Tugendhat’s backers, it will lift her into triple figures, close to Sunak. Badenoch and Truss may cannibalize the right and help her, or one of them may scrape through with the combined total. (All of this is discounting the rumors that the top candidates are lending each other votes in the hope of getting the rival they want in the next round.)

Now that the contest is reaching a wider audience, there’s more scope for someone to unravel and gaffe their way out of the race—or to show a surprising popular touch that reignites their campaign. When the voting resumes next week, it’s all up for grabs.

Claire—after sending out John’s initial introduction to the leadership contest, I realized I should have included a few videos of the candidates so that you’d have faces and voices to go with the names. What fun is it to follow an election without those?

Here they are.

☑️ Rishi Sunak:

☑️ Penny Mordaunt:

☑️ Liz Truss:

☑️ Kemi Badenoch:

☑️ Tom Tugendhat:

🚫 Suella Braverman:

🚫 Nadhim Zahawi:

🚫 Jeremy Hunt:

Watch the Hustings

John Oxley is a writer in London.

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