A party for Penny as Tory leadership contest heats up

Anna Isaac on the mood inside the Tory leadership battle

Friday 15 July 2022 13:22 BST
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Conservative leadership race: Who is Penny Mordaunt?

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“It felt like more of a victory party than just another Westminster drinks,” said an attendee at the garden gathering on Wednesday evening. Still bubbling from her prime ministerial campaign launch earlier in the day, Penny Mordaunt enjoyed a glass of fizz as she chatted with supporters and posed for photographs.

She was attending a Best of British-themed summer party organised by the Team Lewis Foundation in Westminster Abbey’s College Garden. Revellers also posed with people dressed as Peter Rabbit and Paddington Bear. But the star guest was the Conservative leadership contender.

She had reason to celebrate: she’s gone from being branded the dark horse of the contest to a comfortable second place behind former chancellor Rishi Sunak in the race to replace Boris Johnson.

As the former defence secretary moved round the guests, the high temperatures matched the high political drama. “It was full of PR types,” the same figure said, noting a throwback to Mordaunt’s background working in public relations firm Hanover, before she started her career in frontline politics.

But there were also business figures and plenty of MP supporters among the aides past and present.

Mordaunt came second in a vote by Conservative MPs on Wednesday, pushing Liz Truss, an early favourite into third place and snapping at the heels of frontrunner, Sunak.

It is still only the first stage of combat – the parliamentary party contest – next will come the wider Tory party membership.

By Thursday morning the sense of triumph had given way to redoubling campaign efforts ahead of a fresh vote, which again reinforced her second-place position.

As they plotted next steps, the long hot summer of 2019 was on the mind of aides - the last time record temperatures clashed with a campaign for a new Tory leader. This was meant to be the first “normal” summer for Westminster insiders for years: with “an actual bloody holiday” free of Covid restrictions, and leadership contests – a special adviser on the campaign trail told The Independent.

Some senior officials had been feeling demob happy after the relentless pressure of Partygate. One even got caught out by the sprinkler system in Whitehall Gardens, but decided to embrace being doused by the cool water, offering a little grin to passersby.

But with the stakes still critically high for the next week, the focus remains on the race between second and third to see which two names will appear on the ballot for Conservative Party members.

Last time, it was a fight between Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt. Gove lost, but his experience in the race may prove to be of consequence: perhaps, one former Tory election strategist said, of him again playing a crucial role in driving support towards an ultimate winner.

So far, he has campaigned effectively for the relative unknown, Kemi Badenoch. And, as Badenoch’s results showed on Thursday afternoon, she has outperformed some MP’s expectations. Her tally of 49 votes means that even more will rest on how the votes will split again ahead of Monday evening’s vote.

Liz Truss’s team is hopeful that a split right of the party will end up massing around her campaign, pulling in support from the Badenoch and Suella Braverman camps in order to get her towards the key yardstick of 120 votes.

Still, it is a mathematical hill, if not mountain, to climb in order to get there from 64. With Braverman’s votes at 27 and Badenoch at 49, Truss - a former Remainer and long-serving cabinet minister - would need the lion share (56) of their backers, many of whom may want a fresh Brexiteer.

Meanwhile, Tom Tugendhat’s supporters might flee to either the Sunak or Mordaunt camps.Some backers expect the bigger share would go towards Mordaunt, rather than Johnson’s former chancellor.

Overall, the favourites for the final two remain Mordaunt and Sunak who gathered 83 and 101 MP votes respectively on Thursday afternoon. Votes can, of course, go down as well as up.

If there’s a bad performance in the TV debates, Tory MPs with slim majorities who fear their chances at the next general election might switch their allegiances.

With the champagne glasses packed away for now, the outcome is still very much unknown.

“It’s still very much to play for,” one Badenoch supporter said.

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