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Voices: With most Tory MPs plotting against each other, where will Rishi Sunak end up?

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The horse-trading at Westminster reached new heights on Tuesday as the runners remaining in the Tory race desperately wooed the 31 MPs who previously backed Tom Tugendhat, who was eliminated on Monday night.

Officially, the rival camps insist they are not trading cabinet jobs in return for support. Privately, some more honest Tories admit that is happening. Not that such promises are bankable. Nor are pledges to support a candidate. The ballots are secret, allowing MPs to promise in private to back more than one candidate. That is why many MPs have not declared their preference in public and only about half of each candidate’s supporters are known. (For example, Kemi Badenoch got 58 votes last night but has only 27 identified backers). “Everyone wants to vote for the winner for reasons of self-advancement – or say they did!” one Tory admitted to me sheepishly.

Not for nothing do Tory MPs describe themselves as “the most sophisticated and duplicitous electorate in the world”. Enshrined in Tory folklore is the lying game when Margaret Thatcher was challenged for the leadership by Michael Heseltine in 1990. Thatcher’s team, claiming they had “ways of checking”, calculated Heseltine would win the backing of 115 MPs in the first round. He got 152 to Thatcher’s 204, depriving her of the necessary 15 per cent winning margin, and her cabinet persuaded her to stand down.

This time Liz Truss appears to have suffered the same fate, with promises of support failing to materialise. Although she styles herself as the heir to Thatcher, this is one way in which she did not want to copy her.

As the contest among MPs reaches its climax at breakneck speed over the next two days, another dirty trick is much discussed behind cupped hands at a sweltering Westminster. The voting system allows a frontrunner to “lend” votes to one rival candidate in the hope of knocking out another they do not want to face in the runoff among the party’s members.

Allies of Boris Johnson accused Rishi Sunak’s campaign of planning to lend votes to Jeremy Hunt so he would not have to face Truss in the shootout. Now Hunt has been eliminated, some Truss backers suspect the Sunak camp might boost Penny Mordaunt’s numbers so he avoids Truss in the members’ ballot. (It was noticeable that Sunak, when given the chance to question a rival candidate in Sunday’s ITV debate, turned his fire on Truss rather than Mordaunt, asking her what she regretted more – once being a Liberal Democrat member or being a Remainer in 2016).

The allegations are a bit rich; in 2019, it was Johnson who deployed this trick to ensure he went head-to-head with Jeremy Hunt, a 2016 Remainer, rather than his friend-turned-enemy Michael Gove, a fellow Leaver, in the shootout. Johnson’s vote increased by only three after Sajid Javid was eliminated, while Gove appeared to pick up 14 Javid votes and Hunt an unlikely 18. The result: Hunt beat Gove by just two votes to gain a place in the runoff, which Johnson won by a 2-1 margin.

Some Tories are convinced history will repeat itself because Gavin Williamson, the government’s former chief whip, ran Johnson’s campaign in 2019 and is in Sunak’s team today. He was a hopeless education secretary but is a master of the dark arts, a modern Machiavelli who used to keep on his desk a pet tarantula called Cronus, named after the Greek god who castrated his father and ate his children. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Tory MPs and the embodiment of Lyndon B Johnson’s first rule of politics – “to be able to count”.

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In 2016, Williamson was campaign manager for Theresa May when her team was accused of lending votes to Michael Gove in the hope she would not meet Andrea Leadsom in the runoff. (In the event, Leadsom withdrew and May was anointed without a grassroots vote.) It wasn’t the first allegation of skullduggery in Tory elections: in 2005, David Cameron’s campaign was suspected of boosting the vote of David Davis so he did not face Liam Fox in the ballot of grassroot members.

Sunak plays down Williamson’s role, insisting his parliamentary whip is Mel Stride, a former Treasury minister who is not seen as a plotter. Team Sunak has a point when it argues that this contest is much tighter than the 2019 race, when Johnson could afford to lend votes because he enjoyed a commanding lead among MPs. Sunak is not in the same position today.

Yet once he has qualified for the runoff, the temptation to influence the choice of his opponent might prove hard to resist. Even after Johnson leaves Downing Street, the political ends will continue to justify the means.

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