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Tory race approaches dénouement: Truss and Mordaunt vying to face Sunak

20 July 2022 21:35 (UTC+04:00)
Tory race approaches dénouement: Truss and Mordaunt vying to face Sunak

By Orkhan Amashov

The triangle of the Tory leadership race has finally assumed its official shape. Sunak is in the lead, and the question is whom the Former Chancellor of the Exchequer will face in two-horse race. Given the momentum Liz Truss has gained after the fourth round, it appears that the Foreign Secretary is close to battling out Penny Mordaunt, despite being six votes behind at present, on Thursday.

The atmosphere within Westminster and inside the party is combustible – the drama is full of incriminations, recriminations, stubborn vows, hearsay, speculation and a fair share of hoary thinking and footling trivialities.

Metaphorical blood is being shed profusely, as if from a haemophiliac. David Davies, who lost the leadership contest to the beleaguered David Cameron in 2005, believes this is the ‘dirtiest campaign” in living memory. Accusations are made at a moment’s notice and what British media refers to as ‘black-ops’ are in full swing.

Behind the exterior of the campaign's boisterous cacophony there are some genuine debates on tax cuts, the cost of living crisis and many issues of import, but the race is not of a Shakespearean scale, for there is no Boris Johnson actively involved on the road towards a glittering prize.

A steadfast Borisite would say all the candidates cumulatively would not render a fraction of the outgoing Prime Minister’s gravitas and personality; those who were involved in his toppling would beg to differ and argue that this is a chance for a fresh start and a return to genuine Tory values.

Triangle formed

At present, the predicted triangle has been formed. After the fourth-round votes, Rishi Sunak is still in the lead with 118 votes, followed by two fiercely competing comely ladies - Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss - who have garnered 92 and 86 votes, respectively. It remains a question of grand significance as to whom Kemi Badenoch, now eliminated, will support in the final phase of the race.

The feeling inside the party is that the Brexiteer segment loyal to BoJo is coalescing around the Foreign Secretary, as Mordaunt is perceived to be lacking in top-government experience. In the final phase, Truss received a surge in backing – an additional 15 votes she picked up are testament to her improved position - substantially increasing the chances that her name will be one of the two that Sir Graham Brady, the Chair of the 1922 Committee, will announce on Thursday.

One source at Number 10 has told me that if the Tories were in opposition, the choice would have been Mordaunt, but since the winner will also assume the role of Prime Minister, Sunak’s chances are higher. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer is a good debater and experienced, despite his young age; and those who orchestrated the incumbent PM’s downfall will be inclined to support him.

The problem with him, however, is that he is not perceived as a thoroughly decent sort by the party members. The pejorative ‘traitorous’ label, earned by Sunak for his critical role in what Johnson loyalists would say was ‘backstabbing’ of the outgoing leader remains hanging in the air.

Dr Patrick Walsh, an Irish historian, told me that “those who are making statements against Mordaunt, regarding alleged incompetence, all seem to have a political agenda connected to Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

A source in Mordaunt’s team privately explained to me that the crux of the whole campaign against her is a stitch-up entailing aspects which are either wholly fabricated or simply disingenuous.

He believes there is a jealousy factor, as Sunak and Truss have already held one of the high offices of state, and they may feel it is their time to shine, and Mordaunt, who has been a junior minister, albeit with the exception of a short stint as Defence Secretary, has held no top government experience. Another strain of arguments used against her is to do with ‘an alleged flip-flop policy on identity politics’, which also, as my source believes, is in wont of substance.

It is widely expected that Tugendath’s supporters will go for Sunak, although the way Badenoch supporters will behave remains shrouded in relative obscurity. The assumption is that, if Truss makes no critical mistake and avoids slackening the momentum gained, the ex-Equality Minister will lend her support to the Foreign Secretary.

Leadsom clause

In order to ensure that the parliamentary Conservative party is able to install its own a stitch-up leader without involving the extensive Tory membership, contestants agreed in writing they will not withdraw if they make it to the final vote-off.

This is not just a fear emanating from the fictional Francis Urquhart’s ‘House of Cards’ machinations, but from a real political example of the post-Cameron Tory scenery, when Dame Andrea Leadsom withdrew in favour of Theresa May, rendering the members' vote unnecessary.

It has been rumoured on the grapevine that ‘Team Sunak’, which has a high risk of not being espoused on a postal vote, might have counted on this, yet what is dubbed as the ‘Leadsom Clause’ effectively blocks such a scenario.

As the Telegraph reports, an additional layer of complexity to the drama was added on 19 July, when it transpired that more than 2000 signed a petition calling for the incumbent PM to be added to the leadership ballot so as to ensure that the Conservative party membership can have their say on the matter.

It is more than unclear if such a petition could be of consequence, but it shows there is a growing sense of disgruntlement within the larger party in relation to the manner in which BoJo's demise was orchestrated.

In the final analysis, I feel inclined to agree with Dr Walsh’s judicious assessment that anti-Sunak Tories have to balance two essential considerations; who can beat Sunak once the Tory membership comes to the equation, and who can beat Starmer, if a new general election is called. The game is afoot. Dénouement is near.

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