After poring over Sir John Chilcot’s report, and witnessing Tony Blair’s sorrowful defence of his record, Westminster returns today to the Tories’ race to find Britain’s next Prime Minister. MPs have to vote on the three candidates remaining in order to whittle them down to just two, from which members can go on to decide the winner. There’s little doubt Theresa May (who Ruth Davidson now backs) will be one of them. But the big question is whether Andrea Leadsom can keep her lead she had over Michael Gove in the first round on Tuesday as MPs vote again on the thinner crop of candidates.
The Justice Secretary’s allies have been urging Theresa May’s supporters to vote tactically to block Leadsom, with his campaign manager Nick Boles texting MPs to tell them he is “seriously frightened” about the prospect of her entering Downing Street. Gove, he claimed, was ready to spend “two months taking a good thrashing from Theresa, if that’s what it takes”. “Are we really confident that the membership won’t vote for a fresh face who shares their attitudes about much of modern life?” he asked MPs. The message has annoyed some MPs because it seems to attack the Conservative grassroots for being potentially inclined to back Leadsom. Boles later apologised for sending the message on Twitter, stressing that it didn’t represent Gove’s views. Jacob Rees-Mogg has put a more positive case in favour of Gove in today’s Telegraph, praising his “vision” and “competence”. “He put his country before the easy life of Notting Hill friendship and when he believes he is wrong he has the courage to change his mind,” he writes. “These are the qualities needed at this most exciting of times.”
Meanwhile, the energy minister’s allies have warned that it would be an “absolute scandal” if MPs transfer their votes to Gove in order to keep her off the ballot, with one source saying “it would prevent the Conservative Party from having a proper choice”. Leadsom doesn’t lack allies though, as her team claim that “well over 70” MPs were now backing her for the leadership. One MP noted that her performance in parliamentary hustings has “vastly improved”, so she’ll hope that helps her stop her support peeling off elsewhere. She is also being helped by Ukip donor Aaron Banks’ Leave.EU movement, which has bombarded May’s supporters with emails demanding they back her for the leadership or face losing support in their constituencies. “There is more than a hint of Momentum going on, there have been calls of traitor – anyone who votes against her is traitor,” one MP revealed. ”It has been really quite unpleasant and has annoyed colleagues.” Leave.EU may be a mixed blessing, but I’ve pointed out that if Leadsom did become Prime Minister, she could encourage back quite a lot of ex-Tory voters who had drifted away to Ukip.
Leadsom will be more appreciative to have support from Boris Johnson, who is introducing her at an event today. The former London Mayor has also aimed a swipe at Theresa May for calling into doubt the right of EU migrants to stay in Britain, showing that he isn’t shying away to get in the fray. Someone will be eliminated from the race by the end of today (at around 4.30pm), and the scale of Theresa May’s lead will be watched as it will indicate how hard she may have to fight to get into Downing Street. As the contenders make their final pitches, you can stay up to date with it all on our liveblog.