The pollsters and the bookmakers agree that now the Tory leadership race is down to Rishi Sunak versus Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary is the more likely of the two to win over the party faithful.
With the likes of Paddy Power making the mother-of-two favourite to replace Boris Johnson at 8/15 – cut from 10/11 earlier on Wednesday – she has always had the edge on the former chancellor when it comes to the membership, having also scored consistently higher in Conservative Home surveys. (The overwhelming support for Kemi Badenoch, her fellow Right-winger, also suggests the average Tory favours Thatcherite Truss to Brownite Sunak).
Yet having secured the support of just 31.6 per cent of Conservative MPs in the final ballot – compared to Sunak’s 38.3 per cent vote share – if Truss ends up being handed the keys to Downing Street, can she guarantee the support of her Conservative colleagues?
It is perhaps worth noting that Theresa May was backed by nearly two thirds of the party in 2016, with 60.5 per cent of the vote, while Johnson won the support of two MPs to every one who voted for Jeremy Hunt.
If it can be assumed that the majority of Penny Mordaunt’s more moderate supporters would have swung behind Sunak – Truss may end up as prime minister with only a third of the parliamentary party onside. Does it matter?
Iain Duncan Smith discovered to his cost that being more popular with members than MPs thanks to his Eurosceptic beliefs did not exactly bode well for his leadership of the Conservative party. In 2001, he beat Michael Portillo by just one vote in the third ballot to get into the final two before winning over 60 per cent of members. But without a clear majority among MPs, his leadership was hampered by criticism of his inexperience. Many colleagues came to consider him incapable of winning the next general election and, in 2003, he lost a vote of confidence, immediately resigning to be succeeded by Michael Howard.
With some MPs in the “Ready4Rishi” camp also very much of the “Anyone But Liz” persuasion, there is a small chance any victory could be short-lived (which perhaps goes some way to explaining Dominic Cummings’ rather leftfield theory that Johnson is hoping Truss will “blow (up) and he can make a comeback”.)
Yet as one senior Tory pointed out, once a successor is crowned, there is going to be little time for more blue on blue infighting with the next general election less than two years away.
“Part of the reason Iain’s leadership failed is because it was the first leadership race that went out to the members. There were loads of MPs in those days who didn’t want it to have happened the way it did and still couldn’t get over it after Iain took office.
“You don’t see that sort of backlash these days. Colleagues accept that they are there to get the candidates down to the final two and then it’s down to the members.”
‘There were many who didn’t want Boris either’
Another Truss supporter conceded that “while there are some that don’t want her – there were many who didn’t want Boris either.”
They added: “There aren’t massive splits over this. We’ve got no time to argue over the winner with the next general election fast approaching. We’ve got to get on and get stuff done.”
Confident that Truss will “unite the party with tax cuts,” the former minister added: “There are plenty supporting Rishi who aren’t necessarily in favour of his economic policies. Most don’t agree with his idea of wait and see. Some of them are simply careerists. You could argue that MPs who really want change have gone with Liz and those who really want jobs have gone with Rishi.”
Some more veteran Conservatives have been recalling Margaret Thatcher’s election as opposition leader in 1975, when she won the first ballot against Edward Heath by just 11 votes and only became the favourite after the former prime minister dropped out. The party was by no means convinced by the grocer’s daughter from Grantham – and at the time it was reported that 8 out of 10 Conservative peers and a majority of constituency organisations opposed her. Yet she ended up winning over both MPs and members.
Another factor that could play in Truss’s favour is her loyalty to Johnson.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t like and are very upset about the stabbing of Boris,” added the MP. “The fact that she stayed where she was and Rishi jumped ship won’t play well for him.”