Party grassroots appear to want a clear-out of cabinet ministers tainted by the Boris Johnson years
Penny Mordaunt is the new favourite to be the next Tory leader and UK prime minister, after a stunning surge in support among party MPs and members that left her rivals floundering.
The little-known former defence secretary was defeated by Rishi Sunak in the first leadership ballot – by 88 votes to 67 – but is the candidate with momentum behind her, as the race hots up.
Ms Mordaunt leapfrogged Liz Truss into second place, ahead of a second ballot yesterday, and is also the overwhelming choice of the Tory grassroots who will pick the next leader, according to a bombshell poll.
Steve Baker, the influential former Brexit minister, branded Mr Sunak “a loser” in a contest blown “wide open”, with the only certainty that “Rishi won’t be prime minister”.
A source close to the former chancellor admitted that “obviously it’s a fight”, following the results, while another ally insisted he had “done well”, but there was no official response.
Ms Mordaunt is now the bookmakers’ favourite, and landed the support of Tory vice-chair Mike Penning, who quit the post in order to support her.
The results raise the growing possibility that Tory members will pick a different leader to the choice of their MPs, as happened when Iain Duncan Smith defeated Ken Clarke in 2001.
Jostling and lobbying began immediately to try to secure the votes of defeated contenders for the survivors in the race, as they put their pitches to MPs at hustings.
Ms Truss put a brave face on what was undoubtedly the disappointment of winning just 50 votes, pointing to her experience over that of her rival, Ms Mordaunt.
“Liz has the experience to deliver the benefits of Brexit from day one, grow our economy and support working families,” a spokesperson said.
Jeremy Hunt, the defeated 2019 leadership contender and chancellor Nadhim Zahawi were knocked out – leaving six contenders for the second ballot yesterday
Mr Sunak was long expected to top the ballot among Tory MPs, but was denied the expected clear lead ahead of any rival when the results were read out
The other contenders left standing are right-wingers Kemi Badenoch (40 votes) and Suella Braverman (32 votes), with the centrist Tom Tugendhat (37 votes) squeezed between them.
But all three are thought to have little chance in the ballots to come, which are likely to conclude with a choice of Mr Sunak vs Ms Mordaunt or Mr Sunak vs Ms Truss – or even Ms Mordaunt vs Ms Truss.
There is huge pressure on the candidates on the right to unite behind a single
candidate, but both the Badenoch and Braverman camps insisted they would fight on
Jonathan Gullis, an influential backbencher and Mr Zahawi backer, called on fellow right-wingers to unite behind a single candidate, to ensure a place on the final ballot.
“The right of the Tory party needs to unite and decide who they are going to get behind,” he said, without suggesting who should pull out.
Earlier, the explosive YouGov poll suggested Ms Mordaunt, a former navy reservist, would defeat Mr Sunak by 67pc to 28pc among party members – a huge margin.
It put Ms Mordaunt on 27pc support among the grassroots, almost twice as much as second-placed Ms Badenoch on 15pc.
Mr Sunak and Ms Truss were both trailing badly, on just 13pc – as the party grassroots appeared to express a desire for a clearout of cabinet ministers tainted by the Boris Johnson years. Mr Tugendhat, who will now hope to gather up Mr Hunt’s votes, described it as “a fantastic result”, but is facing an uphill task to stay in the race beyond yesterday’s second ballot.
The party’s 1922 Committee is thought to be discussing a threshold of 40 or more votes to avoid being knocked out – to slim the race to three of four contenders for further votes next week.
The ousted Mr Hunt, who won just 18 votes, urged the remaining candidates to avoid “smears and attack” that “bring short-term tactical gain but always backfire long-term”.
“The nation is watching and they’ve had enough of our drama; be the broad church and unbeatable, election-winning machine that our country deserves,” he tweeted.
Mr Zahawi said he would not be endorsing any other candidate (©Independent News Service)