The way to think about the Tory leadership contest is—I say in The Sun, this morning—that it is like a tournament with two sides of the draw, with each side sending one candidate into the final, membership round.
One side of the draw is for full-on Brexiteers. Here Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom, Steve Baker and Esther McVey will duke it out. The other side of the draw features the Cabinet candidates: Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart.
Whoever comes out of the full-on Brexit side of the draw will go into the final round as the strong favourite given Tory members’ views on the subject.
I understand that Boris Johnson has edged ahead of Dominic Raab on this side of the draw. But he will, in the words of one key MP, need to be ‘materially ahead’ of Raab on the first round. Why, because Raab is more likely to pick up support as more hardline Brexiteer candidates such as Steve Baker drop out of the contest.
Raab’s pitch will be that the Tory party is toast if it can’t deliver Brexit, and that he is the man to do that. He’ll argue that other candidates might be better known than him, but Boris’s celebrity won’t save the Tories if they can’t get Brexit done.
But one of Boris’s advantages over Raab is that he has more reach into the rest of the party. His campaign is beginning to pick up support from former Remainer ministers who see the former London Mayor as the Tories’ best chance of seeing off the twin threats of Corbyn and Farage. At the same time, some on the left of the party have decided that stopping Raab—who they see as a down the line right-winger—is now their priority, rather than blocking Boris.
On the Cabinet side of the contest, the question is whether Michael Gove can overhaul Jeremy Hunt.
The Foreign Secretary currently has more MPs backing him than anyone else in the Cabinet. But his campaign has had a bumpy few weeks, and some of his supporters are beginning to peel away. This, perhaps, explains why Hunt felt the need to confirm that he was standing just hours after Theresa May had announced her resignation.
Part of Hunt’s problem with MPs is that it is very hard to see him beating Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab with the party members. Their experience with Theresa May has made the membership very wary of former Remainers.