Tory leadership contest: it's a knockout numbers game

Julian Glover
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Tory leadership contest: it's a knockout numbers game

Tory leadership contest: it's a knockout numbers game

Pick a number, any number, to decide our future. Maybe it’s five — the number of Conservative candidates who turned up for the Channel 4 debate last night. Or one — the number who didn’t.

Perhaps it’s 33 — the number of votes from Tory MPs candidates need to stay in the race in the next poll tomorrow afternoon. Or 160,000 — the estimated number of Conservative Party members who will (almost certainly) choose the next prime minister.

Or the number could be 136 — the number of days until October 31, when Britain is set to leave the EU, perhaps without a deal. Or 313 — the number of Conservative MPs who currently support the Government — fewer than half the MPs in House of Commons.

Whichever number you choose, politics has become a counting game. Fall short on the numbers and you are out.

That is true most of all in the leadership contest, which will race through its remaining parliamentary stages this week. Last night’s debate — without Boris Johnson — didn’t sink any of the candidates who were there. Jeremy Hunt was bland, but decent and competent; Michael Gove was fluent but didn’t look like overhauling him for second place; Dominic Raab will only have appealed to those for whom Johnson is too soft on Brexit; Sajid Javid seemed real, keen and a bit awkward; Rory Stewart was quick and thoughtful: yet none had anything approaching an explanation of how they would work their way through Brexit.

Will any of it make a difference when voting for the second round closes at 5pm tomorrow? Within an hour we will know who has failed to get through. Any candidate falling short of 33 votes will go; if they all pass the hurdle the last-placed will lose out.

Only the survivors will get to appear on the BBC’s election hustings show, which follows EastEnders at 8pm the same night. Boris Johnson says he will take part in this one — by which time there will be only hours left for Tory MPs to make up their minds. He’d have to have an on-screen disaster for the debate to affect his chances at this late stage. Too many people have already given him their public backing for them to want to change their minds now.

That debate could make a difference to who comes second — although most MPs still expect it to be Jeremy Hunt. We will find out soon enough — on Wednesday there will be a third round of voting and then two more rounds on Thursday if needed.

By Thursday night we will know which two candidates have made it through to the membership vote. The probable outcome is also the one that Johnson must now be hoping for — with him in a strong first place among MPs and Hunt a dogged second. Even Hunt’s supporters struggle to see him slaying Johnson among Tory members.

Shocks happen, of course: it’s still mathematically possible that Hunt — or another candidate such as Gove — could scoop up enough support from MPs who don’t trust Johnson to pull ahead among MPs in the last ballot. After all, although 114 MPs backed him last week, 199 didn’t.

But if they were all going to get behind a rival, it would have to start happening now. Instead the signs point the other way: to a virtual Johnson walkover. Many of the hard-Brexit supporters of Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey — 20 votes in total — will head towards him, as will Raab’s whenever he drops out. More strikingly, some votes from MPs who voted Remain are also going to Johnson. The young, modernising candidate Matt Hancock endorsed him last night after pulling out of the race himself — some of his 20 supporters in last week’s ballot will as well but not all of them can bring themselves to.

At least one has already backed the insurgent Rory Stewart instead. The social media sensation of the race, he has rewritten the script by winning the support of enough MPs to stay in the contest longer than anyone expected and by making the case for a different kind of leadership. It would be remarkable if he did it again tomorrow.

If he manages it, the frontrunners will begin to wonder what would happen, if, somehow, he got his name on the ballot paper sent to members. They will wonder, too, what will happen if — more likely — he ends up on the backbenches late next month, having said he will not serve in a Johnson Cabinet. He would make an effective leader of the resistance, with the power to cut through beyond his party.

By the end of the week, questions like that will start to matter as the arrival of a new prime minister looms. Conservative Party rules allow the second-placed candidate to withdraw on Friday — meaning Johnson could become prime minister this week. There’s still a chance of it happening but the pressure is on to hold a members’ race even if it is a walkover — as a chance of sorts to test Johnson on what he might do when he wins, as everyone now assumes he will.

We still don’t know how he thinks he can make his Brexit claims work, or whether he wants HS2 (as one MP who backs the project has been told) or will scrap it (as another thinks he has been promised). Maybe he’ll give answers in the party campaign. If he doesn’t start to define the shape of the government he wants to lead, it will fall down in a heap.

"Rules allow the second-place candidate to withdraw — meaning Johnson could become PM this week"

That’s why even when the leadership result arrives in late July, the counting in politics won’t end. For a start, becoming leader of the Conservative Party isn’t the same as becoming prime minister. Theresa May will resign but there will just be time before Parliament rises for a formal vote of confidence in the Commons, assuming Labour calls one. May won the last time this happened. Would Johnson? The odds are in his favour but only just — and if he lost we might end up with an immediate general election.

How many Conservative MPs might quit the party and vote against the new PM in a no-confidence vote rather than endorse a government which seems headed towards a no-deal Brexit? Probably fewer than has been talked about. But even a handful might tip the balance. Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve and others are determined to stop a no-deal Brexit.

If Johnson uses his runaway lead now to tack to the centre ground and present himself as a uniting prime minister over the next month he would infuriate some of his new supporters in the hard-Brexit European Research Group. But in the end they are bound to be infuriated by him as they are by all Tory prime ministers. The rest of his party might at least give him a chance to prove himself.

But if he goes on instead to look like the leader of what one of his colleagues calls “a nutters’ convention”, with a cabinet of hard Brexiteers such as Dominic Raab and Jacob Rees-Mogg, more MPs might walk out on him. It could help string things along until the autumn that the confidence vote might come before many ministerial positions are filled. Those who want jobs will stay loyal. Those who don’t get them won’t have been told the bad news. But that might only get us to September.

In any confidence vote, the Democratic Unionist Party would be expected to continue its support — not least because the former chief whip Gavin Williamson, who secured the Northern Irish party’s backing for May when she lost her majority in 2017, is now working at Johnson’s side. Counting the other way, there is wild talk that the four Sinn Fein MPs, who have never voted at Westminster, could do so for the first time, adding four more votes against a Conservative Government.

This year began with knife-edge parliamentary battles over Brexit. It will end with them too. This week everything will change — and then nothing will change. That’s the Brexit curse.