Kit Malthouse jumps before he is pushed. Will others follow?

New rules for the Conservative leadership race have imposed a minimum threshold of supporters for eligibility – and leave outsider candidates facing a tough choice.

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Kit Malthouse, the housing minister, has become the second Conservative leadership candidate to pull out of the race to succeed Theresa May, citing the need for the contest to be over quickly. 

The North West Hampshire MP had a frankly pretty creditable six MPs to his name – split, unlike every other candidates, fifty-fifty along Leave and Remain lines. In some respects his failure to garner broader support is a mark of his political success: the rest of the field, with one or two exceptions, has nicked his plan to replace the Irish backstop with alternative arrangements (the so-called Malthouse Compromise). 

Malthouse's departure from the contest follows that of James Cleverly, the only other member of the 2015 intake in the race and a former colleague from the London Assembly. Unlike Cleverly – backed by just two MPs – Malthouse did not cite a lack of parliamentary support as his reason for withdrawing. Considering his lack of a public profile, wasn't in a particularly bad place. 

When I announced my intention to seek the leadership of the Conservative Party, I did so believing that I could make a real difference in delivering a Brexit that would command the support of the House of Commons. 

After 20 years in front line politics as a Deputy Mayor, MP and Minister, I also wanted to lead a new generation of Conservatives stepping forward at a time of profound change in our country. But that experience has also made me a realist and the last few days have demonstrated that there is an appetite for this contest to be over quickly and for the nation to have a new leader in place as soon as possible. 

As such, it seems right to me that I withdraw my candidature and wish those remaining the very best, always recognising there are going to be very challenging times ahead.

As was the case with Cleverly, Malthouse's decision to quit reflects the fact that there is limited appetite for the generational change many Tory MPs have long claimed to want, or, indeed, for a candidate who backed Brexit in 2016 but has remained loyal to Theresa May and her withdrawal agreement since then (unless, that is, their name is Michael Gove).

For that reason, the field was always going to contract pretty quickly, as it has begun to do. But Malthouse's decision to vacate the pitch so abruptly – and voluntarily – reflects the fact that he would have soon been forced to do by the 1922 Committee.

Whereas in 2016 there was no minimum nomination threshold for would-be candidates, this year the Committee has opted to forcibly whittle down a long list of contenders by imposing a set of rules that would have seen both Cleverly and Malthouse face the ignominy of not being allowed to stand at all. 

MPs will require a proposer, seconder, and six further MPs to be eligible the first ballot, the support of five per cent of the party (16 MPs) to progress to the second, and ten per cent (32 MPs) to progress to the third.

Judging by current public endorsements, only Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock would be eligible to make the first ballot. Of those, Hancock – endorsed by just 12 MPs thus far – would likely fail to progress, with Javid only beating the 16 MP threshold for inclusion in the second ballot by just one. Mark Harper, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Sam Gyimah and Rory Stewart would all be barred from standing at all.

That latter group of candidates now faces a hard choice.  A smaller field will inevitably encourage consolidation behind bigger names, punishing outsiders in the process. They can jump on their own terms now and retain some degree of credibility and political capital, as Malthouse and Cleverly have done, or face humiliation in the first ballot. Worse still, they could face the humiliation of not being allowed to run full stop. Those who see their leadership bids as a run for a Cabinet post rather than the top job now have urgent cause for introspection.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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