James Forsyth

Could the Tory leadership race end early?

Could the Tory leadership race end early?
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The Tory leadership is fast becoming Boris Johnson’s to lose, I say in The Sun this morning. He has more MPs backing him than any other candidate, and his campaign receives a further boost this morning with the former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon endorsing him. In the words of one of those knows the Tory parliamentary party best, ‘the wind is blowing in one direction’.

There is increasing talk among senior figures in the party that if the former Foreign Secretary comes out on top in the parliamentary rounds, it would be best to skip the members part of the contest and make him Prime Minister straight away.

The argument goes that the polling shows that Johnson is the members’ choice, and so they wouldn’t mind him being coronated. Also, by ending the contest early, the new Prime Minister would have a chance to get cracking on Brexit. As one of those behind this idea points out, if you stick to the current schedule, then you’ll have the new PM ‘hitting up Europe in the first week of August when they are on the beach’.

But others are wary of the idea. They point out that the members haven’t had a say since David Cameron was elected in 2005, and that ending the contest early in 2016 meant that Theresa May wasn’t properly tested—which led to the disaster of the 2017 election.

There is also an argument that going to the members would help Boris Johnson govern. Presuming that he won, he would be able to say to Tory MPs that his Brexit policy has the backing of party members and so they’re duty bound to support it.

What there is no doubt about is that the Boris Johnson campaign would most like to face Jeremy Hunt in the final two. They regard this as the most predictable match-up.

After a rocky start, Hunt has had a better week this week. He is expected to unveil a slew of new supporters over the coming days.

Hunt’s main rival to get into the final two against Boris Johnson is Michael Gove.

A Johnson / Gove contest would be dramatic given how they fell out in 2016—when Gove quit as Johnson’s campaign manager to run himself. I understand that in private Johnson has taken to referring to Gove as ‘the Remainer’s Brexiteer’.

But a Johnson / Gove contest might not be as bitter as some expect. One close friend of Gove tells me that he’ll not run a ‘scorched earth campaign’ if he ends up in the final two with Boris.