The scale of Boris Johnson’s first-round victory goes beyond mathematics

The chasing pack will be focussing on making an argument for themselves over their nearest rivals, rather than setting out the case against Johnson.

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Boris Johnson has convincingly won the first ballot of Conservative MPs, receiving the support of 114 of his colleagues, which puts him well ahead of the chasing pack (his nearest rival, Jeremy Hunt, had just 43 MPs). More importantly, he has managed to secure the support of more than a third of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, making it mathematically impossible for the rival campaigns to keep him out of the final run-off, unless of course he finds a way to implode over the coming weeks.

But the scale of his victory matters in more ways than just mathematics. The chasing pack are bunched very close together; the gap between Hunt and Matt Hancock, who Newsnight’s Nick Watt reports will drop out of the race later today, is just 23 MPs, a far smaller gap than that between Hunt and Johnson. This means that the difficult arguments about the former mayor of London’s electoral coalition in the country and the ideologically incompatible group of MPs who are backing him are going to be at best a subplot of the next stage of this contest, which will be about the race for second place. And that Johnson’s place in the final two looks inevitable makes it easier for him to swerve risky setpiece events like televised debates. A successful campaign dodging the debates looks like canny media management – if things were going worse for him, the incompatibility of his electability argument with the reality that he can only appear at carefully managed public events might be playing out rather differently. 

Added to that, supporters of the other candidates might now decide to break cover and support Johnson, reasoning that it is better, even at this late stage, to be on the train rather than under it. That would worry me particularly were I in Hunt’s shoes – not so long ago he was the candidate of most of the government payroll. Yesterday he got the support of just 43 MPs – and it’s by no means certain that he will not stagnate or even slip back in the next round. 

But regardless of who manages to bag that second place, they will be largely focussed on making an argument for themselves over their nearest rivals rather than setting out the case against Johnson, which is one reason why the former foreign secretary’s chances of the leadership look better than ever.

This blog originally appeared in Morning Call, our free daily guide to all the news you need to know from around the world. You can subscribe here.

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.