TThe dramatically accelerated Tory leadership race began in a frenzy on Tuesday as more candidates launched their campaigns simultaneously across Westminster. Some had to struggle to meet the deadline to be included on the ballot, while others were forced to withdraw from the contest.
After having less than 24 hours to gather enough supporters, those who easily crossed the threshold to secure their place in the first round of voting focused on soaking up the maximum number of hesitations while their rivals went into got stuck.
Although the new Cabinet had first met at 9am, Sources No 10 said Downing Street was virtually silent while the real action took place behind closed doors in Parliament.
The first twist of the day came when keen-eyed observers spotted Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, getting into the same car after the cabinet. Before they got to Rishi Sunak’s start to leave their support behind, one of Raab’s special advisers nearly gave the game away to the contestants by pacing the crowd – and was told to make himself scarce.
When the pair arrived at the QE II conference center in Westminster, only Raab had a chance to address the crowd of supporters – many of them men in naval suits waving placards that said Sunak would “reunite the country”. Shapps, who chose to end his own short-lived campaign and back the former Chancellor, was watched from the sidelines.
Sunak answered few questions and made no new policy announcements. His longtime team was in attendance, including Cass Horowitz, who is credited with creating Brand Rishi. A young employee was heard saying that a colleague Sunak’s short speech was so good that at one point she was “moved to tears”.
At the same time, less than a mile away, at the television stations’ Westminster studios, Tom Tugendhat also gave his campaign launch in front of a huge banner with his first name on it. Some in attendance at 4 Millbank joked that the ex-armyman would mimic Boris Johnson bulldozing through a brick wall saying ‘Brexit Done’ by driving a tank through the paper placard.
Leading the audience was Jake Berry, the chair of the Northern Research Group, whose support for Tugendhat was a key endorsement to help him bolster support among “red wall” MPs, including key members of the think tank and of the expert class were gathered . After asking just two questions, Tugendhat marched off – apparently to the surprise of his aides.
As a result, his followers posed for photos together, although the candidate for them was missing. As some MPs began to walk away, his closest allies, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Damian Green and Aaron Bell, pushed them into a corner of the atrium and gave them pens to sign the nomination papers.
The third simultaneous launch of the campaign also took place just a stone’s throw from Parliament at the Policy Exchange think tank, where Kemi Badenoch stood on a stage decorated with union flags. Eddie Hughes, a Member of Parliament from Walsall North, enigmatically introduced her because she was afraid of seagulls.
She was watched by Michael Gove, the only cabinet minister to be sacked by Boris Johnson last week, and the four others with whom she resigned from government in a joint statement.
As one of the younger candidates and with no cabinet experience, Badenoch dismissed suggestions that she was unqualified to be prime minister – a suggestion some supporting MPs have already made to her in private.
Without having launched an official campaign, Liz Truss also received fresh support from two cabinet colleagues who are said to be staunch supporters of Johnson – Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries. The two appeared before No 10 to support Truss, a move that rattled some of her existing supporters, who thought her tough support for the Prime Minister would only cement concerns that she was the continuity candidate. “How many votes will she lose as a result?” a minister sighed.
With the deadline for candidates to submit their nomination forms approaching, Home Secretary Priti Patel ended speculation that she might throw her hat in the ring by confirming she would not be running, a development many had anticipated because she failed to meet the deadline Minimum of 20 nominees to secure a spot in Wednesday’s first round of voting.
All candidates were given a 15-minute time slot to visit Graham Brady’s office, where they had to produce papers bearing the names and signatures of their 20 supporters. Only the top two are published, while the names of the rest are kept in secret by the 1922 committee that oversees the election of leadership. The first camp to secure its place in the first round of voting was Tugendhat’s, with Bell filing the paperwork just after 3 p.m.
Meanwhile, outside the elevator leading to Brady’s office, other teams struggling to get across the line were nervous.
One of Suella Braverman’s backers rushed to Steve Baker, the numbers man, and asked if they had enough supporters, to which the former Brexit Secretary gave a subtle smile and nod. Badenoch is also said to have worked up a sweat in the afternoon from failing to make the threshold. But a beleaguered Rehman Chishti, who had struggled to encourage anyone to publicly back his run for leadership, faltered. “If you don’t have that many friends, why prove it?” scoffed a Tory source.
Chishti dropped out of the running 20 minutes before the nominations deadline, while Javid told his campaign team around the same time that he didn’t have the numbers – and after becoming visibly uncomfortable with the heat during his speech on Monday, he joked, that they had the group’s sweatiest campaign.
Within minutes, news of Javid’s announcement spread through Parliament – with MPs rushing off to make phone calls and try to evict his supporters before they were snapped up by rival camps.
A faltering backbencher, who has held talks with all candidate camps, said Tuesday night that “we have to remember that the hardest part of this is going to bring the party back together at the end of the process.” Alluding to Dorries’ attacks on Sunak, they said this was “made extra harsh by a certain cabinet minister who threw bricks on Twitter,” adding, “She should have her phone picked up.”
Although Sunak entered the election with the highest number of MP supporters, Dorries entered fresh attack on Tuesday night, accusing the former chancellor of “dirty tricks/seam/dark arts” after allegations that one of his supporters – Gavin Williamson – had urged colleagues to lend votes to Jeremy Hunt.
As dusk fell and the political temperature cooled, Brady took a familiar position in Committee Room 14 to announce the final number of candidates at eight. MPs floated into the cool night air to continue lobbying unregistered colleagues whose brains were easier to crack in the relaxed atmosphere of Westminster’s various pubs.