Rishi Sunak’s lead falters as Penny Mordaunt marches on

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A bad series of results for Rishi Sunak yesterday: a far from emphatic showing in the first ballot of Conservative MPs and an appalling poll of the membership from YouGov. The second round of voting by MPs today is make-or-break for him.

The only person in Westminster who had a worse Wednesday than Sunak was me: it was a disastrous day for my short Penny Mordaunt position. More on both those topics below.

One does not simply walk over Mordaunt

Former chancellor Rishi Sunak’s showing in the first ballot of MPs is, to put it mildly, not great for a frontrunner. His 88 MPs represent 24.6 per cent of the parliamentary party, the worst performance of any first-round winner since the end of the old “magic circle” system of picking the leader. Until 1964, Conservative leaders emerged not via an election, but through negotiation among party grandees.

Bar chart of percentage of votes for each candidate who won the first Tory leadership ballot showing it's  just a case of history repeating

As you will notice, neither Ken Clarke, nor Michael Portillo, nor David Davis went on to win their leadership election. Of those candidates who did, only Boris Johnson — who faced 10 candidates in the first round in 2019 — has had to defeat such a large number of candidates as Sunak. But Johnson’s 114 votes is greater in both percentage and absolute terms than Sunak’s.

More importantly, most Conservative MPs are not all that preoccupied with the nitty-gritty about the size of the field. They look at a two-digit showing for Sunak, remember that both Boris Johnson (114) and Theresa May (165) broke into triple figures in the first round in their leadership contests, and they begin to wonder if there is blood in the water.

One historically minded MP pointed out to me last night that when David Davis, the frontrunner going into the 2005 leadership election, fell short of expectations, he actually lost votes in the second ballot. And Michael Portillo only picked up one extra vote between the first and second ballot in 2001. Candidates who underperform expectations can often go backwards: Michael Heseltine lost 21 votes between the first and second ballot in 1990, while Michael Gove lost support between the first and second ballots in 2016. (Isla Glaister from Sky News pointed out to me that so too did Rory Stewart in 2019.)

To make matters worse for Sunak, a new YouGov poll of the membership shows his position among members has sharply deteriorated: he loses heavily to all the remaining candidates with a viable path to the ballot paper.

Add that to Penny Mordaunt’s very strong showing. Almost every UK paper, including the FT UK edition, have a big picture of the trade minister on their front page this morning. And the mood among Tories is febrile. Three Conservative MPs I spoke to last night predicted that Mordaunt was heading to the top of the ballot, while I spoke to one Sunak backer who is planning to switch their vote to Mordaunt in today’s poll.

As George Parker, Jim Pickard and Sebastian Payne explain in their write-up of yesterday’s events, the knives are now well and truly out for Mordaunt. (The absolutely marvellous quote that rounds off the piece is worth the price of entry alone.) She still has to navigate several televised debates and an intensified amount of scrutiny, but barring some damaging story or gaffe, she should be treated as the favourite for the party leadership.

Thick with plotting

Readers with long memories may, at this point, be asking “wait a second, Stephen, haven’t you been saying there’s a ceiling on Penny Mordaunt’s support?” And yes, I have, once or twice*.

And I still do: there is a hard limit on the number of MPs that Mordaunt can pull over from the party’s right flank. Her inconsistent public positions on trans rights and her manoeuvring against Johnson both mean that there is a hard ceiling on the number of MPs from the party’s right who will back her. Whether it is Liz Truss or Kemi Badenoch who emerges as the last woman standing on the right flank, the number of MPs who will transfer their allegiance to Mordaunt is very small.

But I had underestimated two things. The first is the political weakness of Sunak. His polling among Conservative members is frankly awful, and there are enough Conservative MPs whose first or second choice is Sunak or Tom Tugendhat, but who fear what they see as the absolute calamity of a victory for Truss or Badenoch.

In addition to Mordaunt’s ability to win votes from the now-eliminated Jeremy Hunt or Tugendhat (who has had a very impressive leadership campaign but has limited room to expand his coalition further), she is well-placed to take votes from Sunak directly.

The second is the political strength of Tugendhat. Not all of Tugendhat’s supporters could be said to be on the left of the party, or can be relied upon to fall behind Mordaunt. Some are not particularly leftwing and have a particular animus against Mordaunt. But most of them can broadly be relied upon to vote for Mordaunt when the time comes.

Mordaunt’s ceiling among socially conservative MPs on the party’s right flank is still real. Her problem with the right goes beyond the party’s MPs and extends into its power brokers, too: Lord David Frost, the former Brexit minister, was criticising her ministerial record this morning and the Daily Mail is still urging the party’s right to unite behind Truss. But Mordaunt’s ceiling on the right doesn’t matter if MPs of all types on the party’s left believe she is their only viable way to prevent a victory by a candidate on the party’s right.

*Three times.

Now try this

Tune in tomorrow, Friday July 15, at 1pm BST to hear George Parker, Brexit editor Siona Jenkins, public policy editor Peter Foster and I discuss what awaits Britain and business after Boris Johnson. Register here to join the subscriber-only event.

I’m very much enjoying the European Women’s Championship, which is being hosted in England this year. There are still some tickets available and there will be more released once the group stages are over.

If you are in need of a good and funny book to tide you over on the journey to and from the game, or just in general, I can heartily recommend Shalom Auslander’s Mother for Dinner, a bitingly funny satire about life, family and politics featuring the last family of Cannibal-Americans. I polished it off on the journey back to Hackney from darkest Brentford.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com.

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