My assessment of the next stage of the Conservative leadership election on this site yesterday was roughly as follows. Suella Braverman was the most likely candidate to be eliminated. Tom Tugendhat would begin to run out of potential votes to pick up.
There was a pathway to the final round for Kemi Badenoch, but it was very narrow indeed. That open to Liz Truss was a bit wider, and would require her elbowing aside Rishi Sunak or, more likely, Penny Mordaunt.
The logic of events was therefore that Truss’s campaign would target the relatively unknown Mordaunt, who as the candidate most perceived to have momentum would find herself under fire – not only from Truss’s campaign but from Sunak’s, and from most of the Conservative Party’s establishment network of MPs, donors, advisers, SpAds, and (sometimes) journalists. “The most reasonable expectation now is of a Sunak-Mordaunt or Sunak-Truss final round,” I wrote.
I add this morning without pretence of modesty that all this has duly come to pass. The weekend will see Tugendhat continue to publicise his credentials, with the expectation of a Cabinet seat when the contest ends.
Badenoch will just KBO, as Churchill put it. Truss, meanwhile, will target Badenoch’s present and especially Braverman’s past support – portraying herself as the best remaining hope for the centre-right of the Party.
Mordaunt’s most likely gambit is to say as little as possible, and hope that her presence as a fresh face carries her into the final. She is leading a kind of peasants’ revolt against the Party’s elites. To MPs and activists alike, her key message is: I’m one of you. Many Conservative MPs feel bruised by the Boris Johnson experience, believe that the Cabinet failed to stand up to him until it was almost too late, and think that their talents have been overlooked. Mordaunt promises them a new start.
Sunak remains the front-runner among Tory MPs, and is experiencing the minuses as well as the pluses of that perilous position. His main opponents are many of those who detest the Government’s tax rises and some of those who support Johnson.
The scenario I sketched yesterday morning of MPs voting for one candidate (Sunak) and Party members another (Mordaunt) remains plausible – together with the baleful prospect of the latter arriving in Downing Street as Prime Minister, come September, short of people either willing to serve her, or who are loyal to her, or both.
The leitmotif of this contest has been that it is proceeding at pace and we know less about many of the candidates than we might. That is perhaps inevitable during the Parliamentary stage. It isn’t during the longer membership stage, which will run from late this month until early September. But the election may nonetheless be all over before it has chance to get going.
The key is the date set for the opening of the poll, since a substantial slice of them vote immediately. If the default option is to vote electronically, as I’m told will be the case, that proportion will rise further. The Party Board apparently agreed last week that members should be able to vote in late July.
The case for this timetable is that many people go on holiday in August, and that there may not be a rush of early returns, since members are likely know less about the final two candidates this time round than they did in 2019.
YouGov showed Mordaunt defeating Sunak by 67 per cent to 28 per cent. Our figures were 58 per cent to 31 per cent. Our survey came at the start of the week and YouGov’s at the end, and I suspect that the latter picked up the trend to Mordaunt evident last week.
Lord Frost’s blistering attack on her yesterday may or may not slow her progress. And the wide margins shown by both YouGov and this site in Sunak-Mordaunt and Sunak-Truss head-to-heads may or may not be replicated in future polling.
But whether they are or not, a late July date for the opening of the poll risks making any hustings held later than early August an empty show – since many of those present will already have voted.
Furthermore, members will then have less of a chance than they might to put Sunak, Mordaunt, Truss or whoever under the magnifying glass. The winner of this election will become Prime Minister. There is a cost of living crisis and a war in eastern Europe. The future of the Union is under threat.
Given the scale of the challenges that the candidates will face, proper scrutiny of their outlook, record and plans is imperative. The date at which polls open in this election should be moved to mid-August.