So much for narrowing the field. Ten candidates have secured the necessary nominations to enter the Conservative leadership race despite the imposition of a minimum threshold of eight supporters by the 1922 Committee. They are, in no particular order: Michael Gove, Matt Hancock, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and Rory Stewart.
The list is broadly as expected, though there are a couple of things to note. The first is that, as of this morning, four of the ten – Harper, McVey, Stewart and Leadsom – did not have enough declared supporters to clear the bar set by the ’22. It’s therefore eminently possible – and in some cases likely – that they had support lent to them to ensure they made the cut. But given that only the names of the candidates’ proposers and seconders have been made public, we cannot know for sure.
What we do know, however, is that there is one line that Conservative MPs won’t cross – be it for reasons of courtesy or genuine enthusiasm. That line is a second referendum, as illustrated by the absence of Sam Gyimah, the only candidate in favour of a new public vote on Brexit. There had been some talk of collegiate MPs lending the former minister the six nominations he needed to make the ballot, but evidently they did not.
That not even half a dozen could be moved reflects just how isolated continuity Remainers like Gyimah are from the rest of the Tory parliamentary party. Or, put a bit more prosaically: a second referendum is still a bridge too far for the vast majority of Conservative MPs. That much, and the fact that Gyimah’s candidacy was always doomed, is obvious from the circumstances of Theresa May’s downfall.
More surprising is the absence of Graham Brady. The former chairman of the 1922 Committee recused himself from overseeing the leadership race on the day of May’s resignation in order to consider a run himself. At that time a Brady candidacy looked like an attractive outside bet. What he lacked in ministerial experience he made up for in loyalty to May and Brexit bona fides. His plan to denude the withdrawal agreement of the Irish backstop, which would be replaced by alternative arrangements on the border, remains the only Brexit plan to have commanded a parliamentary majority that keeps the Conservative-DUP parliamentary bloc intact. And his supporters put considerable time and effort into canvassing Tory MPs.
Yet despite all of that – and his standing within the parliamentary party – by today Brady had concluded that he was not a viable challenger. His failure to enter the race ultimately has the same root as Andrea Leadsom’s failure to muster more than three public nominations: Tory MPs are consolidating around two poles. At the outset of the race it appeared there was space for a candidate who fell between Boris Johnson and the likes of Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove: someone who had supported Brexit in 2016 but had been unimpeachably loyal to Theresa May since. The speed with which Johnson has secured endorsements from all quarters of the parliamentary party suggested that space was much smaller than thought. Brady’s absence suggests it is non-existent.