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Conservative leadership contest: Team Rishi taking nothing for granted in unpredictable race

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In 2016, Theresa May was anointed as the Brexiteers’ imploded, while in 2019 it was always going to be Boris Johnson.

In 2022, the race to become Conservative Party leader and the next prime minister is wide open.

After the first round of voting on Wednesday, Rishi Sunak emerged with most support, winning the backing of 88 MPs – a quarter of the parliamentary party. But his victory was in no way a runaway success.

One of his key supporters told me Mr Sunak was “ecstatic” given he was counting on getting 70-something votes in round one.

A rival candidates’ camp told me the former chancellor had been hoping to break the 100 mark on Wednesday to cast him as the runaway success.

As it stands now, his team are quietly confident he’ll get to the final two – he needs 120 votes to guarantee that – but Team Rishi are taking nothing for granted.

And nor should they in this acrimonious, ill-tempered and unpredictable race.

Politics Hub: Sunak and Mordaunt lead the way after first round

After round one, there are six candidates still in the running, three of whom – Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman – are on the right of the party.

But in the run-off for the final two, the field is open still. For context, in 2019 Mr Johnson got 114 votes in a much smaller party, while Theresa May got 165 in 2016.

The two frontrunners for now are Mr Sunak with his 88, and Penny Mordaunt, the former defence secretary, on 67.

Penny Mordaunt
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Ex-defence secretary Penny Mordaunt is the Tory party members’ favourite candidate

Liz Truss, the PM’s anointed successor – Mr Johnson hasn’t openly said this, but his supporters are out for the foreign secretary in force – is on 50. But with four candidates still to be eliminated in the coming week, that could change.

And while Mr Sunak is on top, it’s Ms Mordaunt who has the momentum – a dark horse and relative unknown outside Westminster who is attracting parliamentary support with her particular brand of conviction Brexiteer mixed with One Nation Conservatism.

She is now the one for Ms Truss to beat and how these two candidates fare in the coming rounds of voting depends on how MPs break as their candidates drop out.

For Ms Truss, there are serious votes to hoover up if she can emerge in the next couple of days as the party’s candidate on the right – her competitors for that crown, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, picked up 72 votes between them in round one.

British Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss leaves her home in London
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Liz Truss has the backing of Boris Johnson loyalists to boost her campaign

As for Ms Mordaunt, she will be hoping some supporters of Jeremy Hunt, who she backed in 2019, fall to her now the former health secretary’s been knocked out of the race.

But she’ll be disappointed tonight that Mr Hunt himself is going to Camp Rishi when she stood by him – a reflection of how unpredictable this race is.

This will be Ms Mordaunt’s problem if those not on the right of the party move to Mr Sunak in massive numbers instead of splitting to her too.

But she will hope to pick up some of the 25 backers of Nadhim Zahawi – the new chancellor is not planning on backing any of the candidates.

Jeremy Hunt is one of the Conservative leadership hopefuls promising a change to tax rates
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Jeremy Hunt was knocked out of the leadership race, then backed Rishi Sunak

Ms Mordaunt will also have her eyes on the crowd backing One Nation Conservative Tom Tugendhat, coming through on Wednesday with 37 votes, but who is in the bottom two. In all likelihood, these votes will split for Mr Sunak and Ms Mordaunt.

As it stands now, barring any unexpected shocks, Mr Sunak looks set to make the final two. But you can see from the various calculations that it’s far from clear who might join him.

First round voting results

Ms Truss is trailing now, but she might pick up if the right wing of the party and Johnson loyalists unite behind her.

And what of Ms Mordaunt? One MP in the Sunak camp admitted to me this week that Ms Truss would be a preferable adversary to the former defence secretary, who is the party members’ favourite candidate.

If Mr Sunak could swing the final stage of voting to push Ms Truss through, perhaps his team will.

But that all depends on how far past the magic 120 line the former chancellor can get. The further the cushion he has, the more votes he can “lend” to the Truss camp.

However, we’re some way off that. For now this is a race in which three candidates are solely focused on getting across the line. And it’s far from clear who will make the cut, with Rishi Sunak, Penny Morduant or Liz Truss the trio with a realistic possibility of becoming our next PM.

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The debate will take place on Monday 18 July hosted by Sky News presenter Kay Burley.

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