We are very proud of our “Who’s backing whom?” list of MPs here at ConservativeHome. Not only because compiling it is an excellent opportunity for parliamentary novices like me to brush up on our backbenchers, but because we continued to update our list even after other outlets gave up. By compiling it through the membership stage, we highlighted before anyone else that more MPs are now backing Liz Truss than Rishi Sunak.
Until the final parliamentary round, Truss was in third behind Sunak and Penny Mordaunt. The split of the right-wing vote between Truss, Suella Braverman, and Kemi Badenoch ensured it was only after other contestants were eliminated – and Mordaunt faced a few torrid headlines – that she emerged as a finalist. Since then, the progress of the contest has been in her favour. The polls, headlines, and anecdotal feedback all say the same thing: Truss is going to win.
So if you are an MP keen on climbing the old greasy pole, but who had the temerity to previously back a candidate who is not the Foreign Secretary, the route for your advancement is clear. Make your apologies, tweet out an endorsement with #InLizWeTruss, and find yourself as PPS to the Department of Widgets before the summer is out. Simple, surely?
Yet, if our list is right, there are 44 MPs who had previously publicly backed a candidate who have yet to declare for Truss – or Sunak. Speaking of which, following the switch of a few current or former ministers a week or so ago, there have been no more high-profile defections from one finalist camp to another. And (if some quick maths of mine is on the money) there are also 32 MPs of the 357 Tory MPs who have yet to back anyone at any stage.
All of this means that Truss still only has the public backing of 42 percent of the parliamentary party. This is a point that a Sunak supporter made in The Times yesterday. “The thing that people need to look at is why the hell isn’t the number of MPs supporting Liz higher”, they grumbled. “There’s lots of MPs who endorsed Kemi [Badenoch] or Tom [Tugendhat] or Penny [Mordaunt] who haven’t backed Liz. What is their downside to coming out? Zero. But they haven’t. The thing that would worry me if I were [Truss’s camp] is that.” Though they shouldn’t crow too much – Sunak has only 37 percent of the parliamentary party onside.
So why haven’t more MPs come out for Truss? The Sunak-ite view is that they don’t rate her enough to do so, no matter their ambitions. Before the contest, there was a lot of talk about a significant anti-Truss feeling in the party. But any Stop Truss campaign has clearly flopped, so that feeling can’t have been too strong.
One also needs to remember how tight the last parliamentary round was. Only 32 voters separated the first place Sunak and the third place Mordaunt. So unless MPs move en masse from Sunak, Truss would always struggle to reach an overwhelming lead. And some political version of the sunk cost fallacy – the Sunak cost fallacy? – prevents them from doing so.
But this suggestion reflects the cynical assumption underlying this Sunak-backer’s grumbling: Tory MPs back a candidate because they will win, and they will benefit accordingly. It is therefore illogical for backers of other candidates not to row in behind the frontrunner. Are they not thinking about their careers? This is the whine of a greasy-pole climber who backed an apparent frontrunner who has proved nothing of the sort.
Instead, there may well be a bulk of Tory MPs who are not so cynical. They backed candidates because they believed in them, and their faith in Truss or Sunak is not as strong as in their first choice. So they won’t move to back them and will not sell their principles to try and get on. That’s rather reassuring.
Let us also remember how limited our pool for in-government leadership contests is. In both 2016 and 2019, the frontrunner had the support of a majority of the parliamentary party. Yet in 2016 that contest never reached the membership, and in 2019 the victory of Johnson never seemed in much doubt. The dynamics of this contest have been more fluid, and the outcome more uncertain. If we are going down the Aussie route of leader-swapping every three years or so, then a contest like this one might become closer to the norm.
The truth is we don’t know. But let’s not try and put this hypothesis to the test again any time soon.