Penny Mordaunt – a politician that only a fraction of the population have heard of, and few journalists have spent any time scrutinising – is, all of a sudden, seemingly headed for Downing Street. That, at least, is the narrative that is gathering pace in Westminster today after the second round of voting in the race to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative leader, and to take over as the UK’s prime minister on 5 September.
Mordaunt picked up the votes of 16 new MPs today, helping her to close the gap on Rishi Sunak, the frontrunner among MPs, who picked up 13 new votes. Mordaunt now has the support of 83 MPs, Sunak 101. The pair have the support of just over half of the Tory party between them and they seem likely to make it to the final two, which will be decided by Wednesday 20 July. Those two candidates will then face the judgement of the party membership over the summer.
I can see only one conceivable alternative to a Sunak-Mordaunt final two, and it does not involve Liz Truss, who picked up 14 votes today to give her the support of 64 MPs. Although Truss, the Foreign Secretary, is in third place, I think Kemi Badenoch, who picked up nine votes today and now has 49 MPs behind her, is a more likely challenger to a Sunak-Mordaunt final.
That might seem eccentric but Badenoch, 42, has come from nowhere to win the support of one in seven Tory MPs; she only became an MP five years ago and has never served in the cabinet. She also has the support of Michael Gove, who has substantial weight in the party and came third in the last two Tory leadership elections. Badenoch and Gove celebrated the latest round of voting this afternoon on the House of Commons terrace.
Badenoch has strong views, and they need to be examined and questioned. She wants to slash the size of the state by more than any other candidate. But her rise damns Truss, who has been running an all but open leadership campaign for months. Badenoch is 15 MPs behind Truss in the battle for third, with 27 MPs in need of a new candidate after the elimination of Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, today.
I do not mean to overstate Badenoch’s chances of surpassing Truss: I suspect most Braverman supporters – directed in part by Steve Baker, her campaign manager, who distrusts Gove – will go to Truss rather than Badenoch, despite Truss having been a Remainer and Braverman’s backers being avid Brexiteers. But I expect Badenoch to outperform Truss in the television debates tomorrow and on Sunday, and a Badenoch surge is the only alternative I can see to Sunak and Mordaunt reaching the final two.
[See also: The death of “Boris” the clown]