Rishi Sunak remains the front-runner but his performance has been underwhelming

Since Boris Johnson announced he would resign as UK Prime Minister last week the chaotic race to succeed him has been in full swing. Initially eleven candidates formally declared and following the initial filtration process and then two rounds of voting by MPs, five remain standing: former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, former Local Government Minister Kemi Badenoch and Chair of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat.

Sunak is the front-runner and the candidate backed by the majority of the party’s establishment. He is seen as the most pragmatic and fiscally responsible choice and offers the greatest degree of continuity in terms of policy. However, many in the party are unhappy with its direction, especially the high-tax approach he has adopted to balance the books to cover emergency spending during the pandemic. Diehard Johnson supporters are also angry at him over his perceived betrayal of Johnson and are overtly trying to derail his campaign.

These would be manageable problems for his campaign if not for the fact he has been unable to establish an unassailable lead even among more moderate and centrist MPs, many of them seemingly unconvinced he has what it takes. His score in the first MP ballot on Wednesday (just under 25%) was the worst ever for any front-runner at that stage of the contest. His supporters could claim with some justification that this was due to the crowded field, but since then he has failed to build a commanding lead with the votes of MPs who had supported candidates eliminated in the first round and who broadly occupy the same political space as he does.

Sunak did win the second ballot yesterday with 101 out of 358 MPs backing him, taking him close to the 120 mark he needs to secure a spot in the final two. He remains in a relatively strong position unless he actively starts losing support, which could happen if MPs currently backing him fear he would be dead on arrival with the membership.

Original Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt’s surge risks edging out born-again Brexiteer Liz Truss

The doubts around Sunak have powered Penny Mordaunt into second place in the race with 83 votes on the second ballot. Mordaunt occupies an interesting space in the party, she is on its liberal wing on issues like LGBT rights but she is also a true believer in Brexit, and burnishes her patriotic credentials including her service in the Royal Navy. She is also a relatively fresh face having only served as a junior minister under Johnson (though she did serve in Theresa May’s Cabinet). As such she has been able to stay under the radar and pull in a wide range of support from across the party, catching her more established rivals by surprise. In addition, a YouGov poll out earlier this week found her to be the most popular candidate among the party’s membership by some distance.

In a race where each faction of the party tries to secure a spot in the final two for their standard-bearer, Liz Truss is battling to be the candidate of the party’s right wing. Despite backing Remain in 2016, Truss has since recast herself as a committed Brexiteer and she has leveraged her roles as Trade Secretary and then as Foreign Secretary to set out a post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ agenda on trade and security. She has also advanced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the controversial legislation that if passed would give the UK Government the ability to unilaterally scrap aspects of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement with regards to the special status of Northern Ireland – a key demand of the party’s hard-right ERG faction. Following the elimination of Suella Braverman, the ERG’s own standard bearer, most of her supporters are likely to back Truss. Truss supporters including Lord Frost, the UK’s former Chief Brexit Negotiator, have already been questioning Mordaunt’s competence and level of commitment to Brexit.

Could Badenoch still beat Truss to be the candidate of the party’s right?

A key obstacle to Truss gaining momentum is Kemi Badenoch, who also draws the majority of her support from the party’s right, but who has shaken up the race in part thanks to being seen as a fresh and energetic candidate committed to core Conservative values. Truss is also running as a committed Conservative, especially when it comes to economic policy, but she has held five Cabinet roles under the previous three Tory Prime Ministers which has required a degree of ideological flexibility and compromise.

In the second ballot Badenoch got 49 votes to Truss’s 64, so Truss needs to eliminate her and win the majority of her supporters in order to beat Mordaunt to the final two. It is unlikely but not entirely inconceivable that Badenoch could yet surpass Truss, but for that to happen she would need a stellar performance in the upcoming TV debates and to win a decent chunk of support from Tom Tugendhat, who got 32 votes on the second ballot as such is the candidate most likely to be eliminated in the next round. However, all things being equal, his supporters are more likely to gravitate towards Sunak or Mordaunt.

TV debates could be make or break

As things stand a top three finish of Sunak, Mordaunt and Truss looks likely followed by a tight vote to establish the final two. A lot could still change over the weekend which will likely feature negative briefings by rival camps in the weekend papers as well as two televised debates. This format should suit the more established candidates, whereas Mordaunt’s relative lack of experience could come under the microscope and other candidates may try to gang up on her, given her popularity with the membership would make her the favorite should she advance to the final two. At the same time, Badenoch and Tugendhat have little to lose and could try to use the debates as a breakout opportunity.

What happens next?

  • Today: First TV debate takes place (7pm, Channel 4)
  • Sunday 17 July: Second TV debate takes place (7pm, ITV)
  • Monday 18 July: Third ballot (voting between 5pm - 7pm), results at 8pm (from 5 to 4 candidates)
  • Tuesday 19 July: Fourth ballot (voting between 12pm - 2pm), results at 3pm (from 4 to 3 candidates); third TV debate takes place (8pm, Sky News)
  • Wednesday 20 July: Fifth ballot (voting between 1pm - 3pm), results at 4pm (from 3 to 2 candidates)
  • Monday 5 September: Winner announced following vote by Conservative Party membership