Penny Mordaunt brings Tory leadership contest alive

'This is a close and nail-biting contest': ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston explains why none of the remaining candidates in the Tory leadership race can be certain of ending up in the final two

To use a sporting cliche, Penny Mordaunt has brought the Tory leadership election alive.

The little known former defence secretary placed second in today's first round, with 67 votes - which is 17 more than third placed Liz Truss, and 21 behind the leader Sunak's 88.

And given that the MPs' contest is all about finding the top two, Mordaunt will believe momentum is with her - whereas the foreign secretary, Truss, should feel anxious.

The question is whether the way that Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries yesterday positioned Truss as the Boris's-Revenge-on-Sunak candidate has hurt or helped Truss.

Either way, she has considerable ground to make up.  Tonight there are three big questions.

First, where will the votes of the two knocked-out candidates, Jeremy Hunt and Nadhim Zahawi, go tomorrow?

My hunch is that more of Hunt's 18 would go to Mordaunt, given her One Nation positioning, than to Truss. And as for Zahawi's backers, and Zahawi himself, it's a calculation I don't yet feel qualified to make.

Second, we now enter the territory of ruthless and cynical game playing. 

For those Boris Johnson loyalists who want Sunak beaten at all costs, one question is whether they transfer their loyalties from Truss to Mordaunt - especially since recent polling (for example by YouGov) shows that Sunak may struggle to beat Mordaunt in the final run-off when Tory party members make the important decision on which of the two top candidates will be party leader and prime minister.

You will notice I am making a bold assumption - which may not hold - that Sunak is very likely to get to the long run-off contest over the summer, since he needs only another 32 votes to reach the magic 120, which guarantees a spot in the last two. 

So the question is whether he has enough backers signed up or likely to come over such that he can lend some of their votes to any candidate he would feel more confident of beating in the final run-off.

You may recall that when Boris Johnson became leader in 2019 he was so far ahead that he lent some votes to Jeremy Hunt, on the basis he felt more confident of beating Hunt in the run-off than of beating third placed Michael Gove.

So the question for Sunak is whether he would rather face Truss or Mordaunt.

What's your bet?

Rishi Sunak at the launch of his campaign to be Conservative Party leader and prime minister. Credit: PA

Finally the other candidate who defied early expectations is Kemi Badenoch, whose resignation from government last week - like that of Sunak - helped to force Johnson's resignation.

She polled 40 votes, which is enough for her to be an important king maker, if not actually make it all the way to the members' voting stage.

It is widely thought that she - and her most prominent supporter, Michael Gove - will end up backing Sunak.

If that is right, and if she and Gove have any sway over the other 38 of her backers, then Sunak can be confident of his place on the hustings during those long summer weeks when members decide who will head the UK's government. 

UPDATE 19.11 I may have misjudged. Talking to Tory MPs, it seems a good number of Hunt’s 18 supporters will transfer straight to Sunak.

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