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There are only four serious contenders left for the Tory leadership

The real question is who of Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat and Liz Truss will face Rishi Sunak in the final round.

By Harry Lambert

It is the day of the first round of the Tory leadership contest. Eight candidates have made it on to the ballot, with Sajid Javid – one of the most experienced Tory ministers, and a mid-tier contender in 2019 – failing to do so. Javid becomes only the latest in a long line of politicians who wielded the knife against a sitting prime minister and did not come to wear the crown.

Eight contenders remain in the race, but in reality I think we are already down to four: Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat and Liz Truss. The other four candidates – Kemi Badenoch, Nadhim Zahawi, Suella Braverman, and Jeremy Hunt – may fall on the first ballot tonight, in which candidates need to win the support of 30 MPs to survive.

The Braverman and Hunt camps both tell me they will reach 30, but I would be surprised if Hunt does – it was notable that he made it on to the ballot at all, with some in Westminster speculating last night (12 July) that Sunak’s camp lent him votes. (Hunt has only 14 publicly declared supporters.) Braverman’s campaign has a clear ceiling, whether or not she survives tonight: she is not going to supplant Truss as the candidate of the Tory right. And Zahawi’s campaign has stumbled from the start: the Tory rebels who told me that Zahawi had “screwed his leadership chances” on the night he became Boris Johnson’s Chancellor appear to have been right.

Badenoch’s strong showing has been a surprise. She is backed by two of the more able Tory MPs in Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien, and she can answer a question without appearing terrified of tripping up, which counts as an achievement for many a modern politician. But her run is really a marker for the future. That is just as well: her strong views on cutting the size of the state deserve greater scrutiny than they are going to get right now.

As for the true contenders, Sunak is all but assured of being in the final two. He already has the public support of 51 MPs out of the 182 to have declared. The real contest is the race to join Sunak in the final two. That appears to be between Mordaunt (publicly backed by 30 MPs), Truss (22) and Tugendhat (20).

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Truss’s team tells me she will have “no trouble” getting the support of 30 MPs tonight (“We’ve got good momentum”). A key Tugendhat ally thinks he has a chance of reaching the final two (“All to play for”), and Tugendhat himself offers this pitch to Morning Call, and the wavering Tory MPs among our readers: “This isn’t about the party but the country. Whoever we choose will have to win the next election for us and that means reaching beyond our base.” (Andrew Marr has written on the challenge that awaits the next leader in the 15 July print edition of the New Statesman: “Whoever takes over inherits a nightmare.”)

Everything is still to play for. While Sunak is highly likely to win the MPs vote, polling suggests he may struggle against Mordaunt or Truss among party members; and Tugendhat could also come to threaten him over a summer campaign. All three rivals to Sunak have 24 hours in which to survive the first ballot and then soak up as many supporters as possible before the second (on 14 July). That, at least, is how the race appears at present. But much may change in 48 hours.

[ See also: The NHS is under strain from Covid once again ]

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