Follow the factions. That’s the best way to understand the Conservative Party leadership race – and to pick the winner.
Around a dozen candidates – representing a spectrum of Tory opinion in Parliament – have declared their intention to run in a contest that will reach half time towards the end of this month and will be concluded finally in early September with the election of a new Tory leader and Prime Minister.
It will boil down to the eternal battle between the Left and the Right of the party for control of the levers of power.
Left and Right are probably not the only terms to sum up the fight. More nuanced are the labels Tory Establishment versus Tory radicals but in the end it comes down to much the same thing.
The Establishment (centre Left faction) includes former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt (beaten by Boris Johnson in 2019 leadership race), Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Tom Tugendhat (who has no ministerial experience, which makes him a clear outsider) and former Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
The buccaneering pro-Brexit faction covers Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, Home Secretary Priti Patel (though she has yet to declare), and relative minnows Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman.
Penny Mordaunt, a Brexiteer with liberal views in the culture wars, with some parliamentary support, straddles both camps.
Sunak, who voted Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum, but who is now wedded to Treasury orthodoxy of raising taxes to cover the £500 billion eye-watering Covid debt, is the clear front-runner among the Establishment faction. He has already secured the backing of 30 MPs, with more to follow. He is almost certain to see off quickly the likes of Hunt, Tugendhat and Javid. Expect them shortly to come out for Sunak, so solidifying his standing as the man to beat.
Sunak is young (42), fashion conscious, articulate and a child of the social media age. He was first out of the blocks with his slick “Ready for Rish!” campaign video focused on his personal story of his climb to power – suggesting he has been planning for this moment for quite a while.
His rivals are paying him the compliment of attempting to tarnish his brand, evidence that he is seen as the man to beat.
On the Right, Truss with 13 declared backers as of today, is making most of the running. She has embraced Brexit with all the zeal of the convert and is a regular performer at the Institute of Economic Affairs, the one think-tank devoted to low taxes, light regulation and shrinking the size of the sprawling modern state. Against that she did vote Remain in 2016 and some doubt she has the gravitas to be an effective Prime Minister in a time of economic woes. Like Margaret Thatcher many years ago, she has even posed with a tank.
Her main rival for right-wing support is Zahawi, equally committed to a tax-cutting agenda, but has a lower parliamentary and public profile. Patel, the most right-wing of the lot, has been slow out of the blocks and may be regarded as too partisan and controversial a figure to progress.
The wild card in all this is Mordaunt. She has secured an impressive 18 backers within the last few days, suggesting that she too is well prepared for the race. But given her liberal views in the culture wars and her lack of top-flight experience, it is hard to see her as the champion of the pro-Brexit, tax-cutting Right.
In a week or so, MPs will whittle down the field to two candidates with the final decision (by early September) to be decided by the votes of 200,000 Tory members. They incline strongly to the Right, not the Left. But after the roller-coaster ride of the Johnson premiership, there will be some just looking for a quiet life. Sunak, with his promise of “serious” government and dismissal of “fairy-tale” tax cuts will have appeal to the party rank and file.
It should come down to Sunak (first in the parliamentary vote) versus Truss in the country. Truss, if she can mount a powerful campaign, could just pull it off. The others will be hoping that they have raised their profile enough and later made the right alliances to have secured a Cabinet job.