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How will the Tory leadership contest work?

It’s a race to the bottom to appeal to the tiny, unrepresentative party membership.

By Freddie Hayward

The 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs decided the rules of the party’s leadership contest last night. Here goes. Candidates will have to secure the support of at least 20 MPs by 6pm today to get onto the ballot. Only three – Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat – currently meet the threshold, but there are around 160 Tory MPs still to declare (see our tracker here).

They will then need at least 30 votes to make it through tomorrow’s first round before successive votes whittle the number of candidates down to two by the end of next week. The final pair will then attend a series of hustings across the country before the Tory party membership elects their new leader by 5 September. (I’m told members of the 1922 executive wanted the date to be even earlier.)

Who are these voters that will pick the next PM? According to the latest data, Tory members are 63 per cent male. On average, they are in their late fifties, white and well-off. Nearly half live in southern England. And there’s only around 175,000 of them – or 0.4 per cent of UK voters.

That’s a tiny fraction. Why is that allowed? Because we elect parties into government not prime ministers. The Conservative Party retains its Commons majority of 75 no matter who is its leader. That’s why Boris Johnson’s claim last week to have a personal mandate from 14 million voters was wrong.

[See also: The Tory leadership candidates are all peddling dangerous delusions]

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Putting the constitution aside, the candidates will continue their campaigns later after several gave their launch speeches in yesterday’s intense heat. Sunak will say today that cutting taxes is about “when not if”. It’s an attempt to bridge the bitter divide growing between Sunak, who thinks cutting taxes immediately would endanger public finances, and the rest of the pack. The former chancellor is attracting widespread criticism for his plans. One former cabinet member described him to me last night as a “primary school chancellor”.

Overall, detailed policy debates on key issues such as climate change have been eclipsed by a race to the bottom on tax cuts. The short time frame of the contest means candidates have only a few days to build support, so they go big and loud. That’s made worse by the knowledge that they will only have to appeal to a tiny fraction of the population if they progress to the final two.

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The expedited contest means Johnson will be removed swiftly but it minimises scrutiny. In recent months, rebels answered concerns that there was no alternative to Johnson by pointing to the rigour of the leadership contest. The process would test candidates and a suitable leader would emerge, they said. That argument is now under strain.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Will Liz Truss be our next prime minister?]