The first round of voting in the Conservative Party leadership contest has seen 3 candidates eliminated and Boris Johnson well out in front. A fourth candidate, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, has withdrawn from the race despite having enough votes to progress to the next round.
Under the Conservative Party leadership rules, tweaked to eliminate the large pool of candidates faster, candidates first had to be nominated by 8 Conservative MPs on Monday. This eliminated Sam Gyimah who was the only candidate campaigning on a platform of holding a second referendum on Brexit.
Thursday was the first formal round of secret ballot voting by Conservative MPs with candidates required to surpass the threshold of 17 votes to stay in the race. Esther McVey (9), Mark Harper (10) and Andrea Leadsom (11 votes) all failed to reach the threshold and were eliminated. On Brexit, Harper stated that the UK could not leave the EU, deal or no deal, on the latest deadline date of 31st October as it would not be ready in time in either case and ruled out a no-deal Brexit. By contrast, McVey and Leadsom both committed to leaving on 31st October, come what may. Matt Hancock surpassed the threshold but has decided to withdraw now, accepting that his chances of winning were remote. The eliminations and Hancock’s withdrawal leave 6 candidates remaining, all male, two who went to Eton School and all but one who went to either Oxford or Cambridge University. By 20th June Conservative Party MPs will have whittled down the choice to 2 candidates who the 120,000 strong party membership then choose between to be the next Conservative Party leader and consequently, UK Prime Minister.
As can be seen in the graphic below (eliminated candidates or those who have withdrawn are in yellow), former Foreign Secretary before he resigned Boris Johnson is in a commanding lead, having achieved twice as many votes as the next candidate, with 114 votes. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is next best with 43 votes, followed by Michael Gove on 37, in spite of the recent revelation of his cocaine-taking past. Rory Stewart was the closest of those remaining to be eliminated, with 19 votes.
With such a commanding lead over all others, and his campaign team strictly limiting the number of public appearances he makes before at least the final round, Boris Johnson looks set to be one of the two run-off candidates. It’s wide open, however, who he will face in the run-off with just 24 votes separating the other 6 candidates.
Political commentators perceive that Dominic Raab’s failure to win much support from the eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG), means he is unlikely to pull enough votes together to finish second. However, it’s possible most of the 20 votes which previously went to Leadsom and McVey switch to Raab to bring about a run-off between two Brexit candidates willing to leave on 31st October with no deal only. Raab’s stance on Brexit is hard-line to the extreme of not ruling out suspending parliament in the autumn to force through a no-deal Brexit.
On the face of it, Rory Stewart (above) is in the greatest danger of being eliminated in the next round, though he may benefit the most from Harper’s exit. He too holds the same view that a no-deal Brexit is not an option and instead advocates for a citizens’ assembly to bring random citizens together to decide on a Brexit compromise. A video clip of Stewart explaining the drawbacks of a no-deal Brexit has attracted more than 2 million views. Hancock’s withdrawal is also positive news for Stewart as both candidates were seen to be largely competing for the same moderate pool of Conservative MPs.
Jeremy Hunt may have reason to be the most optimistic after Johnson of making the final cut having finished in second and holding heavyweight cabinet support from MPs who campaigned both to Remain and Leave the EU in 2016. Yet his lead is slender and potential candidate alliances could lead to him being overtaken.
The voting process will continue on Tuesday 18th June with candidates then required to have 33 votes to remain contenders. On Sunday, Channel 4 will host a debate between candidates. Further televised debates will take place during the process, including plans for head-to-heads between the last 2 candidates to be held on Sky News and the BBC. If all candidates achieve the threshold then the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated.
By no later than 22nd July, the new Prime Minister will be in place.