And then there were six. Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt were eliminated in the first round of the Conservative leadership contest last night (13 July) and Rishi Sunak takes the lead. But the real story is Penny Mordaunt’s surge into second place.
Candidates needed at least 30 votes to progress to today’s second round. Here are the results:
88 Rishi Sunak
67 Penny Mordaunt
50 Liz Truss
40 Kemi Badenoch
37 Tom Tugendhat
32 Suella Braverman
25 Nadhim Zahawi
18 Jeremy Hunt
The race remains unpredictable. More candidates progressed to the second round than most in Westminster expected. At this stage during the 2016 and 2019 leadership contests, Theresa May was on 165 votes and Boris Johnson was on 114 votes, respectively. They were the unrivalled favourites. Rishi Sunak does not have that dominance and Penny Mordaunt has now established herself as a frontrunner.
Liz Truss will be disappointed with the results. After the announcement, one Truss ally told me the results were “solid”, with an unconvincing nod. She will have lost votes to Braverman and to Badenoch, who was only ten votes behind Truss. With the right of the party not yet settled on a joint candidate, they may struggle to get one of their own into the final two. The hustings in front of backbench MPs last night won’t have helped. I’m told most MPs left to vote once Mordaunt finished speaking, leaving Braverman and Truss to address a depleted crowd.
Indeed, the momentum is with Mordaunt; her team were buoyant about the result. “Politics is a feel, and Penny has the right feel,” one MP put it to me. Mordaunt’s team will also welcome new polling from YouGov that suggests she would beat all the other candidates in a head-to-head. By contrast, Sunak would lose to everyone except Hunt (which is no longer possible), and tie with Zahawi (ditto) and Braverman (who is unlikely to make it to the final). These polls matter because they hint at the candidates’ level of support among the membership. But, more importantly, they influence how MPs vote. Tory MPs want a winner; if a poll shows a candidate is popular, their chances improve. And yet despite her strong polling, Penny Mordaunt remains unknown. A new poll from Savanta Comres found that only 11 per cent of the public and 16 per cent of Conservative voters could identify her when shown a photo.
That could all change with the TV debates on Friday and Sunday. Braverman will probably be eliminated in tomorrow’s vote and so the remaining five are likely to participate. Getting to the TV debates has been a key aim for the lesser-known candidates such as Badenoch and Tugendhat. They will have to perform exceptionally well if they want to improve their diminishing chances. And Truss must now unite the right behind her. Otherwise, it seems that Mordaunt and Sunak will be the final two.