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Why Tory members’ ballot on Boris Johnson may be culled or truncated, writes Robert Peston

Can Boris Johnson see the finish line? Credit: PA

Before this Tory leadership election started, the party’s grandees and custodians were telling me party members MUST at all costs be given a choice of candidates to be leader and our next prime minister.

Now they tell me Boris Johnson is so far ahead - both among MPs and seemingly among the membership - that it would politically insane to stick to the current timetable of two candidates beating each other up in public, in front of mostly retired white men, for four weeks.

“At a time when we face the greatest test for generations [delivering Brexit], the spectacle of two middle-aged men scrapping for the votes of our members, who are not exactly a perfect representation of this country, would be catastrophic - for confidence in us and in politics in general," I was told.

Seven men remain in the running to be the next prime minister. Credit: PA

So serious thought is being given both to massively shortening the campaign for members’ votes, or turning it into a confirmatory ballot of one candidate (obviously Johnson) or dispensing with the members’ vote altogether.

Whatever happens, there is a consensus in the party that Johnson is close to unstoppable.

I say “close to unstoppable” because the six remaining other candidates have one final roll of the dice - which is to persuade Johnson to participate in head-to-head TV debates on Sunday and Tuesday.

Johnson and his team are wary and chary of this, because they see it as an opportunity for the six to gang up on him and attempt to humiliate him.

“Frankly it looks like only downside for us,” said one of Johnson’s aides.

Johnson is being called chicken by senior ministers who don’t want him as their boss.

I imagine he will embrace the insult if it carries him into 10 Downing Street.

  • Update at 10.59pm

Another senior Tory has contacted me to say that “under the rules the contest only gets truncated if one of the final two candidates withdraws (technically also needs board agreement) as per 2016”.

This was a response to what I just posted.

In other words, there is great nervousness about the membership leg of the contest but it will only be curtailed or cancelled with the agreement of whoever is runner-up in this first Westminster stage.

I hadn’t realised that candidates cannot pull out of the next round unless they do so by lunchtime on Friday.

It is not possible to see how it goes in Sunday’s TV debate and then pull out.

Which is why Matt Hancock will probably drop out on Friday, though that Is not 100% certain.

If he does drop out, will he back the almost unstoppable Johnson or the only candidate taking the gloves off in the fight with Johnson, Rory Stewart?

I would marginally bet he backs Johnson for sake of party unity, or just possibly Michael Gove.