Fighting to become PM - the inner workings of the race to No 10

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The fight for 10 Downing Street - Getty Images (Getty Images)
The fight for 10 Downing Street - Getty Images (Getty Images)

The demise of Boris Johnson was supposed to spell an end to the chaos of the past year. No more stories about party breaches, golden wallpaper or other scandals: the Lord of Misrule was leaving. But the days since he announced his departure have been some of the craziest in living memory.

The race to succeed him is shaping up to be the most vicious in recent history. ‘There’s so much poison in the system,’ says a former minister. ‘I don’t know how we’ll come back from this.’ We’re not even halfway through the contest yet (the victor will be announced in September) and already the battle for No10 is turning nasty. Blue-onblue is becoming the theme of the summer.

The first part of the contest is the parliamentary rounds where MPs whittle down the candidates in secret ballots. This is made more complicated by the fact — as one former cabinet minister puts it — Tory MPs are the ‘most duplicitous electorate’ in the world. In short, how they say they will vote often varies from what they do.

As George Osborne recalls of a no confidence vote the then leader Iain Duncan Smith faced in 2003, Osborne, David Cameron and Boris Johnson ‘all agreed he had to go and swore a pact’. Only for Johnson to initially go missing so as to avoid voting and Cameron to end up backing their beleaguered leader.

Similar duplicity is on show now in this leadership contest. Barely an hour goes by without a new revelation. Penny Mordaunt is embroiled in a trans row while Rishi Sunak has accused Liz Truss of socialism — only for her camp to denounce him for the same. The attacks have got so bad that both Truss and Sunak refused to do the Sky News debate after deciding enough damage had been done in the first two televised debates — it was then cancelled.

The paranoia is so high that MPs have claimed outside bet Kemi Badenoch’s bid is being masterminded by Machiavellian Michael Gove to split the right of the party and help Sunak. Meanwhile Team Johnson, bitter about their man’s removal, are keen to tell anyone who will listen that his former No 10 aide turned nemesis Dominic Cummings is helping Sunak’s campaign. Not that Cummings seems impressed by any candidate — branding Mordaunt a ‘true idiot’, Truss ‘a total fiasco’ and Sunak’s campaign ‘very misconceived’.

MPs from various camps park out in the Portcullis House reception each day nervously looking over their shoulder to make sure their supporters aren’t talking to rival campaigns. The various WhatsApp groups are abuzz and the bars as busy as ever as MPs look to ease the pressure. ‘At least you lot must be enjoying it,’ was one minister’s withering assessment as chaos reigned.

The field might have been big, but there were plenty of MPs who didn’t like any of the candidates. ‘They are pygmies,’ vents one senior Conservative — suggesting none compare to Johnson. Adding to the drama, there is a contingent of Boris loyalists who ultimately believe any successor will be a serious downgrade. One Downing Street aide takes the view that MPs had a collective meltdown in pushing Johnson out and will reap the results at the next election.

For now though, there are still plenty of candidates who want the job as opposed to viewing it as a poisoned chalice. No candidate was close to 120 votes on the first ballot, so all have needed transfers. ‘In a race with so many candidates, it’s all about winning over other teams’ support when they drop out,’ explains one party old hand. The better organised candidates have spreadsheets so they are well placed to get on the phone min - utes after a candidate is eliminated to win over supporters from the fallen contender. Yet it never goes quite to plan. While a lot of focus is placed on winning the endorsement of the fallen candidate, MP supporters are on independent mind and won’t always follow.

As Liz Truss has found out the hard way. While Team Truss won the endorsement — following tense talks — from Brexiteer Suella Braverman after she was eliminated, it wasn’t enough to transfer all her supporters. Some of those MPs could not look past the fact Truss backed Remain in 2016.

That search for new backers has led to some desperate calls. ‘I’ve been called by Team Liz so they must be concerned about numbers if they are calling a committed one nationer like me,’ complains one newbie MP who takes an ‘anyone but Truss’ approach when it comes to the next prime minister.

As former leadership candidate Rory Stewart put it when reflecting on his own unsuccessful bid in 2019: ‘The number one question they’ll also be asking themselves will be, is this person going to win? Because if they’re not going to win, they’re not going to give me a job.’

Similar conversations are going on now. Outsider candidate Badenoch says her deci - sion not to offer posts has lost her supporters, implying her old friend Braverman had decided to back Truss because of a job offer. Meanwhile, things have become so vicious between the Sunak and Truss camps that ambitious MPs on both sides are praying the other doesn’t get in — on the ground their support of the other’s rival could put them in political Siberia.

When it comes to that rivalry, both camps have been reminded why Westminster is often described as a village. Frontrunners Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have campaign headquarters only a minute’s walk from one another. ‘It’s daggers at Pret a Manger,’ says a senior aide for one of the campaigns of their shared hospitality venue. ‘You wouldn’t want just one breakfast roll to be left.’

But even if MPs are far apart, it doesn’t stop clashes. These days the dirty laundry is so public that many of the attacks occur in person or on social media. But WhatsApp is still ripe for internal rows. A recent rule change to the messaging forum has increased the limit on the number of people who can be in one group chat — it means there is finally a WhatsApp group which has every single Tory MP on. ‘It’s a recipe for disaster,’ says a member of the Whips’ Office.

When leading Brexiteer Mark Francois suggested to his European Research Group colleagues they ought to all get behind Truss so as to avoid the vote on the right splitting, he was met with short shrift from 2019 intake member Lee Anderson who said he was ‘really disappointed’ by the lobbying.

In this high stakes race, the growing fear is that with fighting due to continue throughout the summer, the only real winner will be Labour.

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