Could Rishi Sunak exploit lead to pick his own preferred opponent? JASON GROVES analyses the Tory leadership race as battle goes down to final four

  • Rishi Sunak emerged as the big winner last night, picking up an extra 14 votes 
  • Outsider Kemi Badenoch has just 24 votes  separating her from second place 
  • For Penny Mordaunt, today’s vote may be the last chance to regain momentum 
  • Westminster is frazzled and not in the best frame of mind for a civilised debate

After three rounds of voting in the Tory leadership contest, Rishi Sunak is firmly in control. The former chancellor was not supposed to prosper yesterday when the 27 supporters of Brexit ‘Spartan’ Suella Braverman picked a new side.

Both Mrs Braverman and the European Research Group of eurosceptic Tory MPs had urged her supporters to ‘Unite the Right’ and fall in behind Liz Truss in her battle to overtake Penny Mordaunt. But it did not happen.

Instead, Mr Sunak emerged as the big winner last night, picking up an extra 14 votes while his opponents fought over the scraps.

Out: Tom Tugendhat in TV debate

Barring disaster, he will surely guarantee his place in the final two today when the votes of Tory moderate Tom Tugendhat are redistributed in the fourth ballot.

By tomorrow morning Mr Sunak could be so far ahead that he is able to surreptitiously ‘lend’ votes to the candidate he would most like to face in the final run-off.

The disreputable tactic is hard to prove. But Tory MPs believe it was deployed to give both Theresa May and Boris Johnson an easy run.

In each case their campaigns were masterminded by former chief whip Sir Gavin Williamson, who is now on Team Sunak.

On the evidence of recent days, Mr Sunak would probably rather face Miss Mordaunt, whose campaign appears to have stalled.

She certainly looks likely to be in most need of support, despite clinging on to second place.

For Miss Mordaunt, today’s vote may be the last chance to regain the extraordinary momentum that briefly saw her installed last week as favourite to be Britain’s next prime minister.

Her meteoric rise saw her subjected to awkward scrutiny over the weekend about things she has said and done on everything from trans rights to Brexit.

She failed to achieve lift-off in the weekend debates and is now in danger of hitting the buffers.

Miss Mordaunt never expected to pick up much of Mrs Braverman’s support. But to see her own support fall – even by just one vote – is a serious blow at this stage of the contest when momentum is critical.

The trade minister will hope to secure enough votes from Mr Tugendhat’s supporters today to put herself beyond reach.

If she fails then she risks being picked off by Miss Truss in the final ballot tomorrow. The danger is that MPs sense her campaign has hit a brick wall and start to peel away in greater numbers. But she is not out of it yet. And Miss Truss will be disappointed by the result too, despite picking up some momentum against her biggest rival.

Privately, her team had been confident that she could cut the deficit with Miss Mordaunt to single figures, or even overtake her. In the end, they remain 11 votes behind in third place.

This was supposed to be the day when the Tory Right coalesced behind Miss Truss.

The Foreign Secretary may not have shone in the weekend TV debates, but she did not stumble either.

Yet despite the powerful calls from Lord Frost and others for unity on the Right of the party they have still not been heeded. And time is running out.

The continuing divisions mean that outsider Kemi Badenoch is still in with a shot at the final two, with just 24 votes now separating her from second place.

She gained more votes from the Braverman camp than Miss Truss and appears better placed to win support from those who had backed Mr Tugendhat.

The race’s remaining candidates – Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Tom Tugendhat – took questions from host Julie Etchingham on issues dominating the campaign Pictured: Rishi Sunak (left) and Liz Truss (right)

Mrs Badenoch’s straight-talking style has won her plaudits from across the party but she has a lot of work to do.

If she falls short today then she and her powerful backer Michael Gove could emerge as kingmakers. Despite her position on the Right of the party she has appeared closer to Mr Sunak than Miss Truss.

Even if she goes out tonight it is not at all clear that she or her supporters will choose to side with the Foreign Secretary. It may be that the Right is destined to remain splintered.

Mr Sunak is almost out of sight, but the fight for second is still all to play for. The final battle for votes will take place away from the public gaze at Westminster after Mr Sunak and Miss Truss vetoed a planned live debate on Sky TV tonight.

Their withdrawal is not great for public scrutiny.

But Westminster is frazzled – hot, bothered, tired and increasingly fractious – and not in the best frame of mind for an informative debate, let alone a civilised one. Away from the cameras, in Westminster’s dark corners, Sir Gavin, Mr Gove and other backroom players may be about to make their decisive moves.

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