James Forsyth

Why the TV debates could break Rory Stewart’s momentum

Why the TV debates could break Rory Stewart’s momentum
Text settings

With Boris Johnson having all but booked his place in the final two, the most interesting question of the Tory leadership contest right now is whether Rory Stewart can get the 33 votes he needs to get through the next round of voting. If he does, he makes it to Tuesday night’s BBC debate. At which point, Stewart would have the chance to take on Boris Johnson directly.

Some, including former Downing Street staffers, think that this clash could even propel Stewart into the final two. But I think it could actually break Stewart’s momentum. Why, because a lot of Tory MPs fear too much blue-on-blue action and wouldn’t want the members round to turn into a no-holds-barred contest. Indeed, it is worth remembering that one of the things holding Michael Gove back in this contest is Tory MPs’ fear that a Johnson/Gove final round would turn into a full-on psycho-drama because of what happened on 30th June 2016.

I suspect that if Stewart went for Johnson on Tuesday night, Tory MPs would then manoeuvre to prevent Stewart making the final two. While there might be scores of Tory MPs who want to see Boris Johnson given the most testing examination possible in the members’ round, there are far more who fear the damage that a month of full-on, blue-on-blue action could do to the party’s prospects.