There have been three developments in the Tory leadership race over the past 48 hours. First, the race has narrowed as we expected, with three lesser candidates falling out (although Kemi Badenoch has continued to surprise, surpassing Tom Tugendhat, who is now set to fall in the next round on Monday). Second, parts of the Tory right are trying to drive MPs to unite around Liz Truss, when I think they would be wiser to switch their support to Badenoch. Third, and most importantly, Penny Mordaunt has emerged as the clear favourite to be Britain’s next prime minister after a YouGov poll of Conservative Party members published on Wednesday showed her easily beating the field.
Last week a YouGov poll had showed Rishi Sunak and Mordaunt to be all but tied. This week Mordaunt was nearly 40 percentage points ahead. What has changed? A week ago, YouGov tells Morning Call, a third of party members didn’t know what they thought of Mordaunt. Now only 11 per cent don’t know, with “basically all of those who have now made up their mind saying she’d be a good leader”.
But perhaps the essential fact in the poll is that four in five Tory party members are Leavers. Sunak is ahead of every candidate, including Mordaunt, among Remainers, but he trails Mordaunt by more than 50 points among Leavers. Sunak backed Brexit but he does not strike members as a Brexiteer. As one observer put it, “Brexit is a mood not a policy”.
Mordaunt is capturing that mood. She is also an amenable option to many MPs, including those who do not currently publicly support her. I asked three yesterday: a Tugendhat backer, a Sunak backer, and an undeclared MP. All said they could live with Mordaunt as prime minister. “She could be good in Scotland”, says an undeclared Scottish Tory whose seat is under threat from the SNP. The Sunak backer wants reassurance that Mordaunt would keep the UK within the European Court of Human Rights, but would prefer Mordaunt to Truss. And Tugendhat’s backer agrees that Mordaunt will continue to be propelled by not being as disliked by a major faction in the party as Sunak and Truss each are.
Mordaunt, says a fourth MP, is currently “like Nick Clegg in 2010”. She is, for many Tories, the unobjectionable unknown. Mordaunt has done very little right – her cliché-ridden campaign speech lasted all of five minutes on Wednesday – but she is thriving by having done little wrong in the eyes of MPs. That could shift: we will have two televised debates over the next 72 hours (on Channel 4 tonight and ITV on Sunday), and this weekend’s papers will be trained on Mordaunt, whose light record in government is unexamined. The person currently set to be Britain’s next prime minister is perhaps best known for giving a lewd speech in the Commons after losing a bet.
Mordaunt could still stumble – Truss still has an outside chance of edging Mordaunt into the final two, at least according to the bookies (who now think Truss a more likely prime minister than Sunak, which seems excessive). Truss will indeed benefit from Suella Braverman’s exit yesterday, but Tugendhat’s backers should break for Sunak and Mordaunt, not Truss.
The race to make the final two may come down to whatever Badenoch’s supporters do next week. But Badenoch’s bloc is varied: her backers are likely to split between Sunak, Mordaunt and Truss, rather than all swinging behind the foreign secretary. In the meantime, I expect Badenoch to outperform Truss in the debates this weekend, undermining Truss’ bid for the top two. As for Sunak, he is within 19 MPs of securing his place in the run-off, and should be able to pick them up from Tugendhat and Badenoch’s camps.
[See also: The Tories’ new nightmare]