And then there were six: Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has dropped out of the Conservative leadership contest after a disappointing showing in the first ballot.
In a statement released to the Evening Standard – the paper edited by his old mentor, George Osborne – Hancock admitted that Tory MPs had not been ready for a fresh face. “I ran as the candidate of the future, but the party is understandably looking for a candidate for the unique circumstances we face right now,” he said.
Always an outside bet, Hancock struggled to establish himself as a viable contender in a contest that has turned out to be much less open than any of its participants anticipated. As he admits, the defining question for most Conservative MPs is how they might stem the party’s loss of support to the Brexit Party.
It was unlikely that Hancock would ever be the answer. His support was drawn from a fairly small pool of Tory Remainers and the audience for his key messages – avoiding a no-deal Brexit and taking the fight to the Liberal Democrats – was limited. A badly received launch did nothing to disabuse colleagues of the sense his bid lacked momentum either.
But despite Hancock’s struggle to enter serious contention, his team was not without optimism ahead of the first ballot. They had been buoyed by the defection of George Freeman, the former minister and Downing Street policy chief, from Michael Gove’s camp. They expected more to follow – and crucially, for Rory Stewart to fail to qualify for the second ballot. But in the end, neither Stewart’s failure nor the expected Gove collapse materialised, leaving Hancock’s path to the 32-vote threshold for inclusion on the third ballot so narrow as to be non-existent.
His fellow cabinet ministers, however, will draw the opposite conclusion about their own chances. With Boris Johnson miles ahead, the focus of the five other candidates is on capturing second place. The margin between Jeremy Hunt and Rory Stewart is only 24 votes and Hancock’s decision to quit on his own terms releases 20 into play at once. It isn’t a given that those MPs will move en bloc to whichever candidate he endorses after discussions this weekend. But their entry into the market will encourage those ministers scrapping for second – particularly Sajid Javid, whose team are particularly bullish – that the race isn’t over yet.