James Cleverly won’t be the last to quit the Tory leadership race

The Brexit minister’s decision to quit the race shows there’s limited appetite for a candidate who backed Brexit in 2016 but has remained loyal to May – unless their name is Michael Gove.

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And then there were 12. James Cleverly, the Brexit minister, has become the first candidate to withdraw from the Conservative leadership race, citing a lack of support among his MPs.

The announcement comes as no surprise. Cleverly had the backing of just two of his parliamentary colleagues and stood little chance of progressing beyond the first round – let alone winning.

The Braintree MP – regarded as one of the stars of the 2015 intake of Tory MPs and almost certainly destined for a bigger job than his current post in the next government – admitted as much in a statement this morning.

Last week I announced that I intended to run for the leadership of the Conservative Party and as Prime Minister.

I felt that we needed to deliver Brexit and then quickly move the conversation on to other important issues that face the country. I had hoped that the Conservative parliamentary party would support me to be the face and voice of that conversation.

To do this I asked them to make a leap of faith, skip a generation and vote for a relatively new MP. It is clear that despite much support, particularly from our party’s grassroots, MPs weren’t comfortable with such a move and it has become clear that it is highly unlikely that I would progress to the final two candidates.

For this reason I have withdrawn from the process of selecting a new leader and will not be submitting nomination papers.

>Cleverly’s failure – and his acknowledgement of it – is instructive. First and foremost it is a reflection of the fact is that there is limited appetite among Conservative MPs for a leadership candidate who supported Brexit in 2016 but has since remained loyal to Theresa May, unless their name is Michael Gove.

That, as Cleverly himself acknowledges, means other candidates who have voted for the withdrawal agreement at every time of asking will struggle as the race progresses, no matter how enthusiastically they pitch themselves as fresh faces or appeal to the (evidently limited) desire for a generational shift. The same goes for Kit Malthouse, Cleverly’s former colleague in the London Assembly and the only other member of the 2015 intake left in the race.

His exit also poses two questions. The first is whether other members of what you might call the undercard of leadership contenders, whose backers remain in single figures – Malthouse, Sam Gyimah, Mark Harper, Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom – choose to take the same course of action rather than risk humiliation. It might quickly end up an academic point, given that the 1922 Committee could decide to impose a minimum threshold of ten nominations when it meets to determine the rules of the contest this afternoon. But in any case, the field is going to narrow reasonably quickly.

The second question is where Cleverly goes next. As is manifestly evident from his poor showing this time, he does not command a large personal following. Yet that is not to say he is without influence and, as a reliable media performer, his endorsement will be keenly sought. If it goes to Boris Johnson, who Cleverly backed in 2016 and worked under at City Hall, it is another sign that MPs regard him as the clear frontrunner and believe their interests are best served by getting on board his train sooner rather than later. That dynamic will winnow the field too – and the process of consolidation Cleverly has set in motion is likely to claim bigger, more surprising names yet.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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