Boris Johnson storms ahead as Rory Stewart crumbles in third Conservative ballot

The frontrunner extended his lead, while Stewart went backwards by 10 votes. 

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Boris Johnson has further extended his lead among Conservative MPs (winning 143 votes), while Rory Stewart’s campaign has ended in a poor fifth place, after he lost ten votes over the course of a single day, finishing with just 27 in the third ballot. Jeremy Hunt clung on to second place with 54 votes, while Michael Gove finished just behind with 51. Still in the race, but only just, is fourth-placed Sajid Javid.

That Stewart’s campaign failed to last the day is not a surprise. The support of Dominic Raab, who was eliminated yesterday and was largely supported by candidates from the party’s right who want the hardest of possible Brexits, was always going to flow to candidates other than him. Stewart had reached what one MP dubbed “peak wet”: there weren’t any MPs left who share Stewart’s politics who weren’t already backing him.

It would have been highly surprising had he managed to survive this ballot, given that Javid, who finished narrowly behind him in the last ballot, was well-placed to pick up support from committed free marketeers who had backed Raab. More surprising is that Stewart wasn’t able to hold onto all of the support he amassed in the second ballot.

That is the subject of some conspiracy theories among supporters of Raab, who believe that Stewart was lent support to keep their candidate off the ballot. But Raab would have been eliminated no matter how well Stewart did: he failed to win enough support to clear the 33-MP threshold. What instead appears to have happened is that Stewart’s failure to break through in last night's televised debate, and the harsh reality that he was likely to be eliminated, caused some of his supporters to peel off and back another candidate.

The problem for Javid, however, is that just as Stewart was fishing in hostile waters in this round, it is hard to see how he can make up enough ground to overtake Hunt or Gove and survive  the next ballot. Stewart's supporters will likely dissipate in three directions: some will back Hunt, regarded as the most moderate candidate left. Others will back Gove due to their concern that the other candidates are not alive to the risks posed to the Union between England and Scotland. And some are flirting with the idea that Javid might be able to spring a surprise and defeat Johnson in the members' ballot that follows the parliamentary rounds. 

The reality, however, is that Johnson is well ahead, and even if he hasn’t yet used that huge lead to shape the field to his advantage, he will be able to do so in the coming days.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.