Boris Johnson’s team aim to keep him quiet as he opens big lead

Hunt and Gove look the most likely to fight it out for second slot in Tory leadership battle

Conservative leadership candidate Boris Johnson leaves his home in central London. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Conservative leadership candidate Boris Johnson leaves his home in central London. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

 

There was a sharp intake of breath in Committee Room 14 when Cheryl Gillan announced that Boris Johnson had won 114 votes in the first round of the Conservative Party leadership election, more than a third of the total.

This figure was far beyond the most optimistic predictions doing the rounds at Westminster, more than the combined total of the next three candidates and enough to secure Johnson a place in the final two to go before the party membership.

The result came as no surprise to Johnson’s campaign team, however, who were reported to have written 114 on a slip of paper in a sealed envelope before the vote. And it was a tribute to the unrivalled quality of the former foreign secretary’s operation, in contrast to his shambolic campaign three years ago.

Every one of the 313 Conservative MPs voted, showing their security passes and handing in their phones before casting their secret ballot in Committee Room 14. The room is dominated by a giant painting of Gladstone’s 1868 cabinet, an inspirational image for MPs choosing the next prime minister. To resolve the Brexit impasse at Westminster, the new Conservative leader will need, in the late Claud Cockburn’s phrase, “the brains of a Gladstone and the balls of a Munster Fusilier”.

Thursday’s result leaves Johnson certain to be one of the final two candidates unless a catastrophic misstep in the next few days prompts MPs to withdraw their support from him in the next rounds of voting. His team are limiting that risk by keeping him out of sight, boycotting televised debates scheduled for next Sunday and Tuesday and avoiding broadcast interviews.

Second place

The real contest now is for the second place on the ballot that goes to party members, and Thursday’s vote was disappointing for most of the contenders. Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Mark Harper were eliminated and many of their votes are likely to follow the stampede towards Johnson.

Jeremy Hunt’s 43 votes won him second place, but Johnson’s team had been spinning hard before the ballot that the current foreign secretary was set to come within a few votes of the frontrunner, so the result looks disappointing. Michael Gove will be relieved that, despite the controversy over his past drug use, he won more votes in the secret ballot than he had public endorsements but his campaign still lacks momentum.

Dominic Raab’s 27 votes leave the hard Brexiteer with no chance of making the final two, and his claim after the ballot that his campaign is “just getting started” was ridiculous. His reputation already damaged by a campaign that exposed his flimsy relationship with the truth, Raab has nothing to gain from remaining in the contest and is likely to back Johnson sooner rather than later.

After the votes were announced, Sajid Javid’s team were talking up the home secretary’s prospects after securing “a very strong fifth place” with 23 votes. Javid’s campaign came to life this week after a slow start, and he offers a sharply different vision of the Conservatives’ future to Johnson’s. But he found his energy too late and looks unlikely to leapfrog Hunt and Gove into second place.

Stewart’s rise

Health secretary Matt Hancock’s 20 votes should spell the end of his campaign, which failed to capture the imagination of the party’s liberal wing. Rory Stewart, who scraped over the qualifying hurdle with 19 votes, has emerged as the star of the campaign, taking his message of moderation and compromise around the country and winning himself a hearing among MPs.

Stewart will struggle to win the 33 votes he needs to clear the bar in the next round of voting next Tuesday, but he has established himself as an important voice in the party and a potential leader if the next prime minister triggers a general election and loses it.

Another picture in Committee Room 14 is The Flight of the Five Members, showing five MPs Charles I tried to arrest in 1642, triggering the English civil war. After Thursday’s ballot, Stewart invoked that conflict, warning Johnson against any attempt to drive through a no-deal Brexit by suspending parliament.

“If he locked the doors of parliament, he would be doing it because he knew that parliament was entirely and completely against the central plank of his policy. And he would try to stop parliament from bringing him down by not allowing parliament to sit. That’s what Charles I did. That led to very, very disturbing things in this country,” Stewart said.

Johnson did not take the bait, of course, confining himself to a short, modest statement saying he was “delighted to win the first ballot, but we have a long way to go”. 

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