It’s been a big couple of days for endorsements in the Conservative leadership race. Yesterday Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, gave his backing to Sajid Javid, while Liam Fox, the international trade minister, threw his weight behind Jeremy Hunt this morning. Neither of those cabinet endorsements, however, tells us all that much about where the race is headed.
For that, look instead to two former remainers (and staunch May loyalists) who pledged their support to Boris Johnson yesterday: Simon Hart, the MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, and Michael Ellis, the transport minister and MP for Northampton North.
Anyone who doesn’t work in or cover Westminster full-time can be forgiven for not recognising either name. But they are, in their own way, both incredibly significant as far as the dynamics of this leadership race is concerned. Or, rather, their endorsement of Johnson is.
Consider Hart first. Having voted Remain in 2016, he reconciled himself to Brexit and supported Theresa May’s Chequers plan and withdrawal agreement throughout their short, troubled lives. He voted for the latter three times. Throughout the process he championed an orderly exit from the EU – in the form of May’s deal – as the de facto leader of the Brexit Delivery Group of Conservative MPs. In that role he regularly attacked his Brexiteer colleagues on the airwaves, on social media and in Westminster.
Ellis has a similar political profile. Like Hart, he voted Remain in 2016. As a member of the payroll he has been compelled to support the withdrawal agreement at every time of asking but, unlike many others, he did not resign to oppose it. And throughout it all he has been a doughty cheerleader for May – quite literally – in the Commons chamber.
There are two more important similarities. The first is that neither endorsed Johnson in the 2016 leadership election. Hart supported Stephen Crabb, while Ellis backed May. The second and perhaps most significant is that both won their seats from Labour in 2010, and will go into the next election defending slender majorities – 3,110 for Hart, 807 for Ellis. Also significant is the fact that, according to Professor Chris Hanretty’s estimates, a majority of voters in both seats backed Leave in 2016 – 55 per cent in Carmarthen West, and 60 per cent in Northampton North.
What does this all add up to? It tells us that, contrary to what has for a long time been received wisdom in Westminster, that Johnson’s appeal has broadened rather than contracted since his unsuccessful tilt at the leadership in 2016. It is not confined to Leavers. MPs who are by no measure ideologically, politically or personally disposed to a Johnson leadership – and in Hart’s case, have spent the past year impugning his mission – are now rowing in behind him. Their small majorities go some way to explaining why.
It is MPs like Ellis and Hart who will get leadership candidates over the line. And increasingly, they are breaking for Johnson.