Boris Johnson cruised to victory in the third ballot of Conservative MPs, while Rory Stewart crashed out, losing the support of ten of his colleagues to finish with just 27 votes. It’s down to just Johnson, who has 143 votes, and Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, who are on 54, 51 and 38 votes respectively.
There has been plenty of muttering about tactical voting and the dark arts of Team Johnson by some of his opponents (and indeed by some of his allies). Did some of his followers vote for Stewart in order to shut out Raab and make sure that Johnson went into the contest’s closing stages as the only pukka supporter of no-deal in the race?
It’s perfectly respectable for political operatives to turn themselves into legends and Gavin Williamson, Johnson’s de facto chief whip in this campaign, has done plenty of that in his career. But the blunt truth is that, with just 30 votes, three short of the required number to make it into the third ballot, Raab was done and doomed regardless of how well Stewart did. Johnson eliminated Raab himself by bagging the endorsements of Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey, and the majority of their supporters into the bargain.
The maths simply isn’t there for a conspiracy: Matt Hancock’s 20 supporters largely backed Stewart in the second ballot but a good-sized chunk of them abandoned him in the third after he failed to fire in the BBC debate. That really is all there is to it.
Today may well see tactical voting by Team Johnson, however. This is the last day of the parliamentary stage of the contest and Johnson has the support to choose his preferred opponent, be it Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove or Sajid Javid. All things being equal, Hunt and Gove will take the lion’s share of Stewart’s supporters and then duke it out for Javid’s backers.
But what really matters about this stage of the contest isn’t which candidate gets the fun task of travelling round the country being beaten by Boris Johnson but that even after his disappointing performance in the BBC TV debate, Stewart was able to get the votes of 27 of his colleagues. The likes of David Gauke, one of the government’s most competent ministers and arguably the most effective prison reformer for decades, were willing to publicly endanger their own careers to stand up and back the candidate offering no-holds-barred opposition to Johnson. Frankly, anyone who thinks that Gauke and the rest of the 27 will stand idly by while a no-deal Brexit happens is kidding themselves. That means that Johnson’s supposed electability, the heart of his pitch to MPs, will be tested sooner rather than later.