Rory Stewart has been knocked out of the Conservative leadership race this evening after losing ten votes from yesterday’s round. Boris Johnson remains firmly in the lead. He topped the poll with 143 votes, still under half of Conservative MPs. Jeremy Hunt has held on to second place with 54 votes, but the gap on him is closing. Michael Gove is snapping at the Foreign Secretary’s heels with 51 votes, 10 more than yesterday. Sajid Javid gained 5 votes to come in fourth with 38.
After the BBC debate last night it was clear Rory Stewart’s campaign was losing its sparkle. There were reports today that he was in talks with Michael Gove – there was speculation they might join forces. The same rumour was denied by both camps weeks ago, but we can expect Stewart to endorse Gove tomorrow. If Gove can pick up a significant portion of those 27 votes it could spell bad news for Jeremy Hunt.
Why did Stewart shoot up almost doubling his vote share yesterday only to fall back today? There are whispers that his increase yesterday was likely down to tactical voting from supporters of other candidates in the race. Alternatively, MPs watched Stewart’s quixotic performance on live TVand didn’t like what they saw.
His performance in the debate last night was lacklustre – marred by the weight of expectation. In the end, many of his parliamentary colleagues will have been sceptical of his route out of the Brexit impasse. His strategy was to try and push Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement through parliament unchanged – a tactic that had been tried to death by May herself.
Michael Gove closing in on Jeremy Hunt likely comes down to him picking up some of Dominic Raab’s 30 votes. Gove had a two-pronged strategy last night on the TV debate. He emphasised his Leave credentials, pointing out he was committed to the cause before even the Brexiteer’s number one candidate Boris Johnson. And, he majored on the importance of keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of No 10, indirectly positioning himself as best placed to do that.
Sajid Javid was also angling for some of Raab’s votes in the debate last night. He strengthened his commitment to leave the EU on 31st October, under any circumstances. It was the hardest stance he’s taken since launching his campaign and it appears to have worked. But – it will not help him pick up any of Stewart’s 27 votes tomorrow. Picking up the moderates who backed Stewart would require quite the turn-face from his stated policy position last night. It won’t take a cynic to realise that.
And as ever Boris remains miles ahead. He did well last night. The format suited him and he was able to disguise patronising his rivals under the guise of praise. There was talk yesterday that the Johnson camp would lend votes to Hunt to see him in the final two – as the least threatening candidate for him to face in the membership ballot.
While that turned out to be untrue there is little doubt that Johnson would still most like to face Hunt in the final two. There is talk, even among the anti-Boris MPs, that a Michael Gove-Boris Johnson final ballot would be the worst of all worlds for the Tories. Boris would still win, so the theory goes, but only after taking a significant battering from Gove in the Tory membership hustings stages. Boris’s credibility would be damaged before he even got the keys to No 10.
But Hunt’s second place looks shaky. The fight tomorrow for the final place on the ballot will be between Hunt and Gove, and it could be very close.