July 14, 2022 - 7:00am

The first MPs’ ballot has left the Conservative leadership race delicately poised. Though Rishi Sunak came first with 88 votes, he’s not that far ahead of Penny Mordaunt on 67 votes. Liz Truss came third on 50 votes and Kemi Badenoch fourth on 40. 

There’s some debate as to whether Mordaunt now has the momentum in this contest. Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, believes so. “This election is now [hers] to lose”.  Conservative commentator Andrew Lilico disagrees; of the three front runners, he argues “none of them have the momentum… they’ve all done less well than one might have expected at this stage.”

We’ll soon know who’s right, but the margins between the candidates are slim enough to allow an upset. There are three factors to look out for.

Firstly, the collapse of the front-runner’s biggest advantage — which is inevitable. Many MPs back the leading candidate for no other reason than they think he or she is going to win. Once that doesn’t seem quite so certain, support can melt away. 

The second possibility is that one or more of the stragglers will pull out and do a deal with someone more likely to win. There’s already talk of the Truss, Badenoch and Braverman campaigns merging to provide a united candidate for the Tory Right. 

And, thirdly, there’s the impact of the forthcoming televised debates. Assuming that all the remaining candidates agree to participate, a lot could turn on how well they perform under attack. 

Sunak has already weathered various criticisms, implicit and explicit, of his record as Chancellor. He will know what’s heading his way in any debate — and ought to be prepared for it. Penny Mordaunt has more reason to be nervous. She’s become the one to stop — and her record as one of the wokest Tories leaves her open to challenge. Her opponents will be paying close attention to any discrepancies between what she says now on the relevant issues and what she’s said in the past.

For an American example of what can happen to an unprepared candidate, look at this clip in which Tulsi Gabbard skewers Kamala Harris during the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination. It’s excruciating stuff and the Harris campaign never recovered. 

Of course, not everyone has the gumption to take on a fellow candidate in this way — and I doubt that Mordaunt would have much to fear from Sunak, who’s been notably tongue-tied on questions like “what is a woman?”. Truss might prove to be a more formidable opponent, but she’s vulnerable to a counter-attack for voting Remain in 2016. 

If I were Mordaunt, the opponent I’d really worry about is Kemi Badenoch — who is famously outspoken in her anti-wokeness. That’s not to say that any of the candidates will come as badly unstuck as Harris did, but the potential does exist for a game-changing moment.   

The best-case scenario for Mordaunt is that Badenoch is eliminated before any head-on confrontation. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.