What Rory Stewart's latest surprise victory means for the rest of the Tory leadership race

John Rentoul

Rory Stewart goes on making the news, going from last place to overtaking Dominic Raab and Sajid Javid in the second Tory leadership ballot. Stewart is now in contention for the right to take on Boris Johnson in the final vote among Conservative Party members.

This sets up an interesting TV debate on the BBC tonight. It means that Johnson, in his first big public test of this campaign, will have to face Stewart, his fiercest critic.

And it also means more potential cliffhangers to come, starting at 6pm tomorrow, when the result of the third ballot will be announced. Before then, I expect Javid to have withdrawn. I think he will take part in the TV debate, because he thinks he has something to say, but tomorrow he can retire with honour, having secured the 33 votes needed to give him the option of going to the next round. In doing so he avoided joining Raab in the relegation zone.

We can assume that most of Raab’s votes will switch to Johnson, his rival for the hard-Brexit vote among Tory MPs, which means the important question is what will happen to Javid’s votes. It is possible that the largest number will switch to Stewart. So, if Gove can continue to gain ground on Hunt, the three of them could end up pretty much tied for second place.

Don’t pay too much attention to stories of Johnson’s campaign “lending” votes to Hunt because he would be the easiest candidate for their man to beat. Hunt’s people accuse Gove’s people of putting the story about to draw attention to their candidate’s claim to be best placed to take on the frontrunner in the final round.

Even if Johnson’s campaign were thinking about it, they would probably think better of it. That kind of tactic has a habit of backfiring, as some of the Labour MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership to “broaden the contest” can confirm.

And in any case, it is not clear who is the candidate that Johnson most fears in the final round, to be decided by the 160,000 party members around the country.

We had two significant opinion polls of party members earlier today. One, by YouGov for The Times, attracted a lot of attention for its finding that Tory members would be prepared to see Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the UK if that were the price of getting England out of the EU.

This poll also found a high level of support for a candidate who isn’t even in the leadership contest. It found that 46 per cent of Tory members would be “happy” if Nigel Farage were to become leader of their party.

All of which goes to underline the weakness of any candidate who isn’t seen as being totally committed to Brexit. Stewart shouldn’t stand a chance, except that he has managed to upset expectations at every stage so far; Hunt should not fare much better in party members’ minds; and even Gove, co-leader with Johnson of the official Leave campaign, is now being described as a Remainer by Brexit activists on social media – because he voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal all three times and stayed in government to defend it. Johnson voted for it only once, with a great show of reluctance.

The other survey of party members, by Conservative Home, confirms that Johnson has a huge advantage over any of his rivals. Testing all the possible combinations of names for the final two, about 70 per cent of them say they would vote for Johnson if his name were one of them, against about 25 per cent for anyone else.