Knockout day in Tory leadership race as MPs to vote out 'candidate they don't want'

Crucial Wednesday ballot described as 'moving day' after which last two candidates will emerge

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The outcome of the Conservative Party leadership race for Britain’s next prime minister was hanging on a knife edge on Wednesday after the fourth ballot of MPs.

The fight for second spot is now difficult to determine, with Liz Truss potentially edging ahead of Penny Mordaunt as the favourite.

Whoever wins that race will almost certainly be up against Rishi Sunak but with the latest polling showing that both women are far ahead of beating the former chancellor among the Conservative membership, either could end up as prime minister.

Key to whoever wins that race will be how the 59 MPs who backed Kemi Badenoch decide to vote. There is some expectation that the majority of them will go for the Foreign Secretary Ms Truss, who attracted a significant 15 new backers taking her to 86 votes.

She is now only six votes behind the early favourite Ms Mordaunt, whose vote base increased by 10 to 92.

Mr Sunak landed a marginal three vote increase in his share, achieving 118 backers which would leave him only two short of achieving the magic 120 needed to guarantee a second round spot.

Those supporting Ms Badenoch are thought to be a mixed group of MPs and it is unclear which way their 59 votes will be split between the three remaining candidates.

Ms Mordaunt had been expected to receive the majority of Tom Tugendhat’s 31 votes after he was eliminated on Monday but it did not turn out that way.

The three candidates made their final pitches to MPs before Wednesday's vote, with Mr Sunak promising Tory members that he would keep wind farms away from their homes even as he promised to pursue energy independence by 2045.

Ms Mordaunt made a raft of policy statements including plans for a tougher line on China, digitalisation of the public sector, reforms to the housing market and powers to stop the release of violent criminals.

And Ms Truss put her focus on tax cuts and bringing down the cost of living, in an article for the Daily Telegraph in which she said she was the "only person who can deliver the change... in line with true Conservative principles".

To guarantee a spot in the last two, Ms Mordaunt, a former defence secretary, will need half of Ms Badenoch’s votes.

But there is also the possibility that some MPs may well change their minds at the last minute, making the outcome unpredictable even for Mr Sunak.

“Tomorrow’s vote is what I refer to as ‘moving day’, in which everyone will decide who they don’t want rather than who do they want,” said the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, who backs Ms Truss. “Momentum matters in this contest and I’m sorry for Kemi that she is out — this is a really brutal business — but I think momentum is with Liz now.”

With the margins so tight, each vote counts and the unexpected removal of the party whip from Tobias Ellwood for not attending Monday’s no-confidence vote could be significant.

Mr Ellwood, who was in Moldova for discussions on the Ukraine war but not on official government business, will not be eligible to vote.

He was an outspoken critic of Mr Johnson’s leadership and removing the whip is considered a final act of revenge.

The outcome for the final pair will be announced at 4pm on Wednesday. The contest is then opened up to the estimated 160,000 Tory membership who will vote by postal ballot with the winner declared on September 5.

Badenoch goes from unknown to real prospect

The rise of Kemi Badenoch and her growing popularity among grass root Conservatives had been a remarkable revelation in the Tory leadership contest.

The 42-year-old came from being virtually unknown to nationwide recognition during the television debates in which her no-nonsense straight talking won praise.

This drew the Conservative heavyweight thinker Michael Gove to act as a campaign chief, realising the prospect of a rising star.

“She has three qualities which are what any new leader or any new prime minister will need — courage, conviction and clarity,” he told a Policy Exchange event on Tuesday.

Ms Badenoch, whose parents are Nigerian, is unrepentantly right wing — hard on immigration, uncompromising on the deportations of illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda and anti-woke.

The MP for Saffron Walden, Essex, who was in a tranche of ministers who resigned over Boris Johnson’s lack of integrity, set out her thinking in a widely read piece in The Times.

“People are exhausted by platitudes and empty rhetoric,” she wrote, adding that “an intellectual grasp of what is required to run the country" is missing.

She also lamented the decline of the West. “Without change the Conservative Party, Britain and the western world will continue to drift" and rivals will "outpace us economically and outmanoeuvre us internationally”, she wrote.

Her rise is also an interesting commentary on the diversity of the Conservative Party, which has traditionally been a white, male-dominated party. It will now either have a female or ethnic minority man as its next leader and prime minister.

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Updated: July 20, 2022, 7:39 AM