Five candidates are left in the Conservative leadership race, which has now become even more unpredictable following the elimination of Suella Braverman from the field.
While the top three slots remain unchanged, Liz Truss had another difficult round of voting as she failed to close the gap on Penny Mordaunt and instead found another right-wing rival Kemi Badenoch chasing her lead.
Round two of voting showed again that while Mr Sunak is the frontrunner, winning the support of 101 MPs, Ms Mordaunt has the most momentum – with her 83 votes representing the biggest gain. Ms Truss is struggling to close the gap, coming in nearly 20 votes behind Ms Mordaunt on 64. And she now has the added headache of Kemi Badenoch potentially peeling off votes on the right of the party that she might have hoped to pick up.
Ms Truss is grappling with two issues in her bid to replace Mr Johnson. Her performance by Ella so far raises the question of whether Ella being Boris Johnson’s anointed successor is the kiss of death within a parliamentary party that wants a break from the past.
When I put that to her, the foreign secretary dodged the issue, arguing the change she’d bring was on economic policy with a new plan for tax cuts.
As for why she didn’t resign while dozens of other colleagues did, Ms Truss said it was because she is a “loyal person”. “I’m loyal to Boris Johnson, I supported our Prime Minister’s aspirations.”
It was a response that drew applause from Johnson loyalists in the room, such as culture secretary Nadine Dorries and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
But how the cards fall over the coming days is still so unpredictable.
Backers of Liz Truss insist the second stage was always going to be a challenge – given three candidates from the right remained, and backers of Nadhim Zahawi and Jeremy Hunt, both eliminated in the first round, were unlikely to break for Ms Truss.
“This was always going to be a difficult round for Liz. There was not a very large pool to fish in,” is how Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury and campaign backer, put it.
But the second difficulty she is now dealing with is the rise of Ms Badenoch on the party’s right. Ms Truss could move up the running order or even be pushed into fourth place, depending on what happens next.
Policy Hub: Final five candidates announced in Tory leadership race
That’s because it is unclear right now who Suella Braverman and her 27 backers will break for – Kemi Badenoch or Liz Truss. Following her elimination on Thursday, Ms Braverman refused to give a quick endorsement, while her campaign manager and prominent ERG figure Steve Baker told me he’d asked her supporters to move in a block behind Ms Braverman.
How these MPs decide to move could blow up this race if they side with Ms Badenoch.
Ms Badenoch is still very much in contention as the candidate of the right, picking up 49 votes in round two and now in fourth place behind Ms Truss.
The foreign secretary’s team will no doubt try to win over Braverman’s backers by arguing that Ms Badenoch can’t make up the ground to second. Her team from Ella will also no doubt warn those on the right that splitting the vote could let Ms Mordaunt through the middle in the hope that the prospect of a Sunak/Mordaunt run-off will see the deal.
But can Ms Truss – remember she voted to remain in 2016 – convince the hardline Brexiteer wing of Braverman backers to move to her in round three? So far, the ERG group of Brexiteers have split their support between Ms Braverman and Ms Truss.
So we go into the weekend with Mr Sunak still as the front runner, and Ms Mordaunt with the most momentum as Ms Truss slugs it out with Ms Badenoch for support from the right of the party.
Mr Sunak is still chasing the magic 120 number to guarantee his spot in the final two, while Ms Mordaunt will want to maintain momentum, hoping the TV debates might light her rising star further. And as for Ms Truss, she has the chance to close the gap, if only she can consolidate the right.
Sky News is hosting a live TV debate with the contenders vying to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and therefore prime minister, and you could be in the virtual audience.
The debate will take place on Monday 18 July hosted by Sky News presenter Kay Burley.
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