Why a week is an eternity in British politics

Seven days after Boris Johnson said he's going the battle to succeed him is far from over

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The Conservative leadership contest was predicted to be the equivalent of Britain’s Grand National steeplechase race. But while the field has narrowed to a handful of runners, there is still no clear choice on the direction the party will take under the eventual winner.

The list of 11 candidates and one potential runner who started the contest on Monday shrank to eight within 24 hours and then to five by Thursday.

The attempt to coalesce around one name, an outsider promising electoral appeal, has surged through the middle and the sleek establishment candidate is still ahead of the rest.

The shape of head-to-head battles when the leadership contest is opened up to party members, however, is still up for grabs.

Many big names fell out early on. Former health secretary and chancellor Sajid Javid, who sparked the avalanche of resignations from Boris Johnson's government, pulled out before the start.

Home Secretary Priti Patel chose not to run. Jeremy Hunt, the 2019 runner-up, didn't make the cut in the first ballot nor did Nadhim Zahawi.

The winner and Britain’s next prime minister will probably be chosen from former chancellor Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. After second-round voting on Thursday, two others soldiered on, Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi attending the Conservative Way Forward Relaunch at the Churchill War Rooms in London. PA

Sunak takes early lead after Boris admits defeat

It has been a tempestuous fortnight in Westminster politics that has resulted in a once untouchable prime minister being unseated after 50 ministerial resignations.

While Mr Sunak and Mr Javid were quitting on Tuesday last week, with pressure mounting on other Cabinet members to follow suit, Liz Truss was at a G20 meeting in Indonesia. When Boris Johnson capitulated on July 7, her campaign was left in abeyance as she waited for the 15-hour flight home.

Eventually her leadership launch came one week later, the day after the first ballot, and was lost in the electoral chatter. As one onlooker said, “it lacked fizz and sparkle” and, embarrassingly, Ms Truss momentarily got lost attempting to leave the Westminster venue.

Not so for Mr Sunak’s highly polished campaign launch, although it was tarnished by officiousness and control. A handful of journalists not on “the list” were left outside the room apparently because it was filled to capacity.

It latter transpired there was plenty of room for placard-waving “Rishi” cheerleaders to boo down Sky’s Beth Rigby for asking an awkward question.

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak gestures at an event to launch his campaign to be the next Conservative leader and prime minister, in London. Reuters

There is growing concern that his campaign has failed to become the runaway success his high-profile supporters hoped. Mr Sunak only edged ahead in the latest ballot with 101 votes to second-placed Ms Mordaunt’s 83.

It was thought numbers would be enhanced by Jeremy Hunt declaring for Mr Sunak after he came a humiliating last place in the first ballot. Mr Hunt had been expected to support Ms Mordaunt who mortgaged her political career by backing him in 2019.

It was intriguing to see Mr Hunt on Thursday, with trousers hitched up above his socks, walk past Mr Sunak and his wife in a Westminster corridor exclaiming “I’m just going to vote, Rishi”. A brief nod was all he got in return.

In for a Penny …

The campaign had remained relatively free of personal attacks until Lord Frost — a Brexiteer so hard-bitten that he could not remain in Mr Johnson’s government — claimed that Ms Mordaunt “simply wasn't up to the job” as a minister.

That is at odds with staff who worked with Ms Mordaunt during a short tenure in the Ministry of Defence, praising her skill and thinking.

“Because we all believe in you, ma’am,” one of the military men in her office told her when handing over a memento engraved with the words “To Believe” after the Mr Johnson, new installed as prime minister, sacked her in 2019.

Belief in Mordaunt will be growing in her camp after her odds of becoming the next prime minister went from 100-1 two years ago to 8-1 two months ago to this week’s 4-6.

But there is a chance the black arts practitioners in Mr Sunak’s camp — he has four former chief whips on-board — will attempt to manoeuvre votes that will push either Ms Badenoch or Ms Truss into the final pair. He would rather them than Ms Mordaunt, who polls show is most popular among the 200,000 Tory members.

Ms Mordaunt proved her cool at her leadership launch in a sweltering, packed room on Tuesday. She can hold a crowd, speaks without notes and has the common touch.

By contrast Mr Sunak’s media performances have been evasive and lacking gravitas. And he has a bit to be evasive about. He carries the baggage of a police fine for breaking lockdown rules and questions over his wife’s tax status, his US green card and his proximity to the scandals of Mr Johnson’s premiership.

All of this is being closely observed by the Labour opposition that currently leads the Tories by 11 points in light of the Johnson scandals.

They admit that Mr Sunak’s close association with Mr Johnson and own personal difficulties provide them with strong ammunition in a future election battle. Asked who they feared the most, one Labour figure told The National: “Penny Mordaunt. We would not want her.”

Outsiders hit the ground running

The race has also allowed new faces to step forward. Ms Badenoch’s qualities of straight-speaking and deft campaign management has driven up her stock considerably to the point that she secured 40 votes in the first round and 49 in the second.

The politician, who largely lived in Nigeria until she was 16, will surely secure a significant government post from whoever becomes the next prime minister.

Mr Tugendhat has also demonstrated that he is willing to handle the hard questions and put forward some original thinking. While his campaign has been slightly overcooked with military references to his army past — he served on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — he has been willing to openly face the media.

He will be looking to convince the wider public — and Conservative activists — in the coming television debates, which could well provide some awkward, potentially destructive, moments in the week ahead.

As with Ms Badenoch, there is a strong chance that Mr Tugendhat could secure a senior government post under the next prime minister.

Tom Tugendhat speaks to the media near Parliament in London. Reuters

The path for Ms Truss getting to the last pair is now narrowing, even though she received a 28 per cent increase in votes during Thursday’s ballot, coming in third with 64.

In the next ballot on Monday, she could pick up a significant number of the eliminated Suella Braverman’s 27 backers, then a chunk of Ms Badenoch’s votes when she is possibly eliminated on Tuesday.

If Ms Mordaunt does not receive any of the above votes and loses a large chunk of Mr Tugendhat’s votes to Ms Truss, then the foreign secretary could prevail in the final pairing.

Equally, Mr Sunak could either fail to pick up many more votes or lose backers over a poor television debate performance, leaving the two women in the final pair.

Approaching the final furlong

However, on the current trajectory, it looks like Ms Mordaunt versus Mr Sunak in the final furlong.

A challenge for Ms Mordaunt then will be the intense scrutiny that she will come under, especially her private life. She is unmarried, without children and understood to be in a relationship with a classical musician or singer.

The media glare will be daunting and Tory members could quickly turn against her if she falters during interview in hustings that will end in late August.

No Cabinet minister has yet to back her, perhaps in the belief that if they rally around Mr Sunak, they would be in a better position to keep their jobs.

Penny Mordaunt arrives at the Cinnamon Club as she launches her campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party in London. EPA

But a key figure who could swing the vote — both among MPs and the Tory membership — is Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, whose credibility increased after he refused to join the race, instead focusing on his department while the Ukraine war rages.

It is speculated that Mr Wallace, who will probably keep his job whoever wins, might come out in favour of Ms Mordaunt in the coming days. There is also a curious historical note in that when Ms Mordaunt was sacked from defence, she was replaced by Mr Wallace.

For now, the favourite can contemplate with some optimism cleaning out of the current Cabinet and presenting Britain with a fresh, new Conservative face.

Conservative leadership candidates – in pictures

Updated: July 15, 2022, 8:24 PM
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