Johnson’s win leaves rivals scrabbling for second spot in final ballot
With Boris Johnson’s overwhelming victory in the first round of voting for the Tory leadership, the question for MPs is who will challenge him in the final ballot of party members which will decide the contest.
Undoubtedly, there will be pressure on those towards the bottom of the poll to declare their backing for those who appear to have the best prospects of success.
At this stage, however, none of the surviving candidates seems ready to withdraw, with their camps insisting that they can still pull through.
At the moment, it would appear that Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove – who finished second and third with 43 and 37 votes respectively – are the strongest placed.
Mr Gove will probably be relieved to still be in touch having endured a difficult week with disclosures over past cocaine-taking while Mr Hunt secured high-profile backing from the likes of Amber Rudd and Penny Mordaunt.
Both are fishing among a similar pool of votes – having said they are committed to taking Britain out of the EU, although they are ready to delay beyond October 31 if there is a prospect of a fresh deal with Brussels.
It remains to be seen whether either one can attract enough additional support from among the “soft Brexiteers” to give them a decisive advantage.
Dominic Raab – who was third with 27 votes – will also be hopeful of at least getting the 33 votes in the second round on Tuesday needed to get him into a potential third round the following day.
The former Brexit secretary campaigned on a promise to leave by October 31, deal or no-deal, and will look to pick up votes from Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey who took a similar stance but were eliminated in the first round.
It is more difficult, however, to see how he can progress from there with the bulk of the Brexiteers in the Commons rallying around Mr Johnson.
That leaves Sajid Javid, with 23 votes in the first round, Matt Hancock on 20, and Rory Stewart on 19, all scrapping to stay in the contest.
Despite having significant ground to make up to get into the third round, none seems ready to give up just yet.
Mr Javid’s team were encouraged by the positive reception for his launch on Wednesday, when he pitched himself as the fresh face of Conservatism, even if it came rather late in the day for the first round of voting.
Meanwhile Mr Stewart – whose idiosyncratic campaign style has won him a committed online following – took encouragement from a poll by the Conservativehome website which had him running second to Mr Johnson among party members.
In the end, however, the former foreign secretary is so far ahead, both among MPs and the grassroots, it would take a major upset to prevent him achieving his long-cherished ambition and gaining the keys of No 10.