The contest that will decide the next Conservative Party leader is well under way, with two ballots over and the candidates whittled down from 11 to 6.
The results of the second ballot held on Thursday saw Rishi Sunak increase his support among MPs to 101. Penny Mordaunt secured 83 votes; Liz Truss 64 votes; Kemi Badenoch 49 votes and Tom Tugendhat 32 votes.
In the absence of divine intervention, it is all but certain Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch will be eliminated in ballots three and four, respectively. Observing the numbers above you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a three-horse race for the premiership. In a manner of speaking, it is. Either Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or Penny Mordaunt will be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Rishi Sunak has gained the confidence of the party’s establishment and is so far the only candidate to garner triple figure support. In so doing his position in the final two seems secure. The real race, for the moment at least, is between Truss and Mordaunt to determine which of them will be joining him for the membership vote.
Penny Mordaunt is the underdog in this race. She was sacked from the cabinet when Boris Johnson took office in 2019 but shortly returned to government as a Minister of State. She supported Brexit in 2016 and backed Jeremy Hunt for the Tory leadership three years later. She has embraced a low profile throughout the Johnson years, but Mordaunt’s support has soared in recent weeks, and she is currently the bookie’s favourite to take the top job.
Liz Truss, on the other hand, has enjoyed cabinet positions for Mr Johnson’s entire premiership: first as Secretary of State for International Trade and later as Foreign Secretary. According to polling conducted by ConservativeHome last year, Truss was the most popular cabinet member among Tory members for over a year and was widely tipped to become the next leader. So far, though, she seems trapped in the shadow of a soaring Mordaunt.
The reason this is a race for second place is two-fold. On the surface it is factually a race to determine who will appear alongside Rishi Sunak in the membership vote. The material reason, though, is far more fundamental: it is increasingly likely that whoever emerges in second place will win the overall contest and become the next Prime Minister.
Ian Duncan Smith, William Hague and David Cameron all came second on the first ballot of Conservative MPs but triumphed in the members vote. This could be a sign of good things to come for Penny Mordaunt who came second in the first ballot this time round.
Historical precedent aside, consecutive polls have proved sombre reading for the Ready for Rishi campaign. On July 13th, a poll conducted by YouGov and published by The Independent defined Penny Mordaunt as the runaway favourite securing the support of 27 per cent of Tory members. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss only muster 13 per cent, respectively.
The head-to-head figures are even more depressing for the former Chancellor. In a match-up against Penny Mordaunt, the poll predicts Mr Sunak would be crushed, securing only 28 per cent of members’ support against 67 per cent for Mordaunt.
Rishi Sunak would also be staring defeat in the face in a race against Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. In that scenario he fares slightly better on 35 per cent, but Truss takes it home locking in 59 per cent of members’ support.
Numbers don’t lie. There is a disconnect between establishment Conservative MPs and their grassroots members. Mr Sunak’s support among Tory MPs creates a skewed and inflated sense of popularity in the wider party.
Either Liz Truss or Penny Mordaunt will emerge in second place – it’s too soon to tell. Maybe Liz Truss will secure endorsement from fellow and former contenders, Badenoch and Braverman, enticing their supporters to back her campaign. Or perhaps Penny Mordaunt will continue to move mountains and land herself a heartbeat away from the premiership.
There are still weeks until the membership begins to vote. As the adage goes, a week’s a long time in politics and so anything could happen. But at this moment in time, the race for second place on the ballot of Conservative MPs appears to be the race to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.