There were no obvious winners in the Tory leadership contest on Tuesday, as the process – which must somehow come to a resolution in less than 48 hours – meandered forward frustratingly slowly.
In Tuesday’s second round of voting, Boris Johnson again emerged in first place with the support of 126 Tory MPs, his vote not surging as much as some hoped. Some in his team wanted half of the 313 available votes, which would have meant 156 backers but even the arm twisting and threats – now common currency in Westminster – weren’t delivering. Of the 50 votes up for grabs following the elimination of some candidates in recent days, he picked up just 12, a curiously low tally.
Jeremy Hunt continued to maintain a distant second place on 46, a fact his team repeated over and over again on Tuesday evening, sidestepping the inconvenience of adding just three votes. It is clear the moderniser caucus that had backed Matt Hancock and might have been Mr Hunt’s for the taking had gone elsewhere.
Michael Gove’s campaign refuses to die, despite the cocaine revelations of 10 days ago, but refuses to surge either, staying in third place, five votes behind Mr Hunt. Sajid Javid scraped home with the minimum number of support to avoid ejection, overtaken by Rory Stewart and crashing into bottom place amongst the surviving candidates. Some of his supporters gave the impression that the end cannot come soon enough.
Mr Stewart, who at times seems like the favoured candidate in parts of the media, surged ahead with 18 extra backers, taking his tally to 37 – fourth place. Two hours later, however, he struggled to land punches on Mr Johnson in an hour-long TV debate where the outsider was at times more of a target than the front runner. Given Mr Stewart’s pitch for the final two is to ensure Mr Johnson is forced to confront reality, he made four more weeks of his confrontational approach look distinctly unappetising.
In truth the Tory leadership race is proving every bit as stubborn as all other parts of modern Brexit politics – front rank politicians refusing to compromise or bow to rivals consumed by certainty, baffled that tides of support do not flow inexorably their way. Meanwhile the voting public remained shut out, irritable and baffled, even as the five white men squabbled un-priministerially on bar stools. Those tuning in for Casualty – the usual fare of 8pm on a Tuesday – will have wanted more blood and gore from the hour that followed.
There were some moments of drama, with Mr Javid bouncing colleagues into an external review of Islamophobia – a commitment which they will need to be reminded of by tomorrow so as not to wriggle out of. Mr Hunt was commended for his tax plans, while Mr Johnson declined to concede that his comments over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe lengthened her jail sentence in Iran.
However the biggest revelation of the race may be Mr Johnson’s comments about Brexit, as he started to spell out some new elements of his plan. The former foreign secretary believes that tariffs and checks can be avoided at the Irish border by invoking GATT 24, a clause to keep existing relationships in place. This will draw fire as experts say GATT 24 would not apply in a no-deal Brexit, or without the consent of the EU which is unlikely to come. Mr Johnson also said that the Irish border question could be sorted out in the transition period, even though the transition and the existing Irish solution are inextricably linked.
Such remarks will prompt much doubt and concern in Brussels and Dublin. In last night’s debate, however, Mr Johnson had plenty of cover. Only Mr Stewart rejected this approach, while the other three agreed that by turning up the no deal rhetoric, they could transform the debate with Brussels. With such a high degree of consensus even at this stage in the race, Mr Johnson may just get away with his plan.
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