Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt formally kicked off their head-to-head battle for the keys to Downing Street this afternoon as they each faced their first grilling by Tory members.
The frontrunner and the self-described ‘underdog’ sought to win over Conservative council bosses today in what was the first of more than a dozen events in front of the Tory grassroots which the pair will take part in over the next month.
The support of Tory councillors and Tory council leaders will be critical to both men’s hopes of victory and whoever does become PM will be reliant on them to motivate activists and knock on doors.
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt appeared to take a page out of Rory Stewart’s playbook as he met voters while out on a run this morning, telling them he wanted to make the UK ‘walk tall in the world’ again.
He said: ‘I’m the outsider but in politics upsets happen. Brexit happened. No one thought it was going to happen and I am going to make this one happen.
Mr Hunt’s and Mr Johnson’s appearance in front of the Local Government Association Conservative Group came after it was claimed that Mr Johnson’s team had warned ministers that failing to publicly back him would destroy their careers.
One minister was warned that it would be ‘a shame if you failed to make progress’ by not swapping from a rival candidate quickly enough ahead of yesterday’s votes which saw Mr Johnson chosen to face Mr Hunt in the final two.
Supporters of third placed finisher Michael Gove questioned whether Mr Johnson’s team arranged for some of his backers to ‘lend’ votes to the Foreign Secretary to ensure he got through – something it denies.
Following the elimination of Sajid Javid from the race on Thursday morning with 34 votes, at least five of the Home Secretary’s supporters – Chris Philp, Chris Skidmore, Mims Davies, Kevin Foster and Mike Wood – said they would switch to Mr Johnson.
But the former foreign secretary’s vote tally only increased by three in the final ballot of MPs, fuelling speculation that some of his most loyal supporters had been instructed to vote for Mr Hunt.
Mr Hunt beat Mr Gove by just two votes – the same number as were missing from the expected increase in support for the favourite.
Jeremy Hunt (pictured today as he attended a Local Government Association Conservative Group event in Westminster) has described himself as the ‘underdog’ in the race to be PM
Boris Johnson (pictured today as he left the LGA Conservative Group event) is viewed as the prohibitive front runner with his supporters believing victory is his to lose
Mr Johnson was grilled by Conservative council bosses at the event in Westminster. He will face a bigger test tomorrow when he takes part in the first major hustings event in Birmingham
What do we know about Tory members?
The decision over whether Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson becomes the leader of the Conservatives is now in the hands of Tory Party members.
The last time the Conservative Party released information about membership was in March 2018, when it put the number at 124,000.
Their average age is 57, according to a survey carried out after the 2017 general election by the Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) Party Members Project.
This compares with an average age of 53 for Labour members and 52 for Lib Dem members.
More than half are estimated to live in the southern half of England, with 12% in London and 42% in the rest of the south. Some 18% live in the Midlands and Wales, 17% in northern England and 10% in Scotland.
Seventy-one per cent are male, according to the QMUL survey. This compares with 63% of Lib Dem members and 53% of Labour members.
While the inquest into what had happened in the final ballots continued in Westminster, Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt sought to put the controversy behind them as they got stuck in on the first day proper of the two-way fight to take over from Theresa May.
Mr Hunt started the day in Worcester where he was pictured running before going to help out at a bakery in the nearby town of Tenbury as he delivered loaves of bread and met voters.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson had celebrated making it onto the final ballot by attending a Tory event in Reading last night.
But both men came back to London as they addressed Tory councillors at a behind-closed-doors event in Westminster.
Mr Johnson went first as he was asked about building on Green Belt land, his plan for the local election sin 2020 and council funding.
Mr Hunt then faced questions on the thorny issue of adult social care, with the UK’s ageing population having been blamed for the budget woes of many local authorities.
The former foreign secretary (pictured today as he left the LGA event) faces a month-long battle against Jeremy Hunt in which they will take part in 16 hustings events
Jeremy Hunt started his day out on the campaign trail in Worcester before returning to London for the LGA event
The pair will have plenty of opportunities to hone their answers on such topics as they face a series of 16 hustings events across the country as they try to persuade Tory members to vote for them.
The first major hustings event will take place in Birmingham tomorrow while the final one will be held in London on the evening of July 17 before a winner is announced in the week beginning July 22.
Mr Johnson’s team wanted to face mild-mannered Mr Hunt instead of Mr Gove, his former confidant turned nemesis, because they believed the former was less likely to fight dirty.
A source told MailOnline that a former supporter of Dominic Raab, who was eliminated early on in the race, was warned to fall in line behind Mr Johnson by Gavin Williamson, his campaign chief.
Mr Williamson, a former chief whip, was said to have warned them: ‘If I wanted you to vote for someone else I’d tell you.’
Mr Johnson (pictured leaving home today) came first in the vote with 160, but Mr Hunt came home just two votes ahead of Mr Gove, 77-75 raising questioned about whether Mr Johnson’s team arranged for some of the runaway favourite’s backers to ‘lend’ votes to the Foreign Secretary
Mr Williamson, a former chief whip, was said to have warned a Dominic Raab backer: ‘If I wanted you to vote for someone else I’d tell you.’
Mr Hunt (pictured today in Worcester) is seen as a less punchy opponent for Mr Johnson in the runoff
It came as questions were raised over the way the vote was conducted, with 90 MPs allowed to vote by ‘proxy’ so they could choose their candidate despite not being there in person.
What happens now?Tory leadership rivals face three weeks of hustings in front of the party faithful
Jeremy Hunt effectively has a fortnight to derail Boris Johnson’s march to becoming Tory leader – with the first hustings taking place tomorrow.
The two candidates face four weeks of campaign events where they will set out their stall to the 160,000 Conservative members who will decide who enters No10.
But their ballot papers will not be sent out by post until July 6 – meaning Mr Hunt has two weeks to land a knockout blow against the frontrunner.
The party has organised 16 hustings events across the country – with the first in Birmingham tomorrow afternoon. The final event will be in London on the evening of July 17 and a new leader will be announced in the week of July 22.
June 22: West Midlands
June 26: Digital Hustings
June 27: South (Central)
June 28: South West
June 29: Lakes & Borders
June 29: North West
July 4: Yorkshire & Humber
July 5: North East
July 5: Scotland
July 6: East Midlands
July 6: Wales
July 11: South East
July 12: Gloucestershire
July 13 Cambridgeshire
July 13: Essex
July 17: London
TBC: Northern Ireland
July 22: New leader announced
Mr Johnson came first in the vote with 160. But Mr Hunt came home just two votes ahead of Mr Gove, 77 to 75.
One supporter of Mr Johnson said that the result was revenge for the way that Mr Gove had turned on him in the last leadership race in 2016, going from his chief of staff to a rival candidate.
The source told the Times: ‘Gove stabbed us in the back — we’ve stabbed him in the front.’
The result in the fifth and final ballot came after Mr Gove had managed to finish second in the fourth round, sending shockwaves through the contest.
Mr Gove’s decision to stand for the leadership in 2016 scuppered Mr Johnson’s campaign and the wounds have not healed.
There was also widespread speculation – denied by Mr Johnson – that supporters of the frontrunner were being encouraged to vote tactically in order to prevent Mr Gove reaching the final ballot.
Mr Johnson supporter Johnny Mercer denied there had been dark ops taking place during the Tory leadership campaign.
He told the Today programme: ‘I have to be honest, I’m pretty close to Mr Johnson and the operation and the campaign, and I just haven’t seen it – I haven’t seen it going on, I’m not convinced it’s possible.’
Admitting some MPs may have ‘voted for different people at different times’, he added: ‘I don’t think there’s some sort of underhand operation and people like Mel Stride, who ran Michael’s operation, he has accepted that as well.
‘It’s a great story for the media, of course, as a sort of continuation of the drama from years ago, but in reality I don’t think it exists.’
But Simon Clarke, another supporter of Mr Johnson, suggested some MPs may have ‘freelanced’ outside the official campaign.
‘I think some people might have taken it upon themselves to try and steer the outcome, ‘ he said.
The two final candidates will attempt to woo Tory councillors this afternoon when they separately address Conservative members of the Local Government Association.
Using his loaf: the Foreign Secretary helped deliver bread in Tenbury, Worcestershire today as he launched his campaign ahead of a meeting with Tory councillors in London later
Mr Hunt went on to beat Mr Gove by just two votes, the same number as were missing from the expected increase in support for Boris Johnson
ITV will host first head-to-head Tory leadership debate
ITV will host a head-to-head debate between Conservative leadership candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.
The broadcaster has promised to ‘get answers to the questions that matter’ in its coverage of the two hopefuls to be the next prime minister.
ITV made the announcement following news that Michael Gove had been knocked out of the leadership race leaving Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt competing for votes from the Tory membership.
It comes after the BBC programme featuring the five would-be PMs has been widely condemned after it emerged one of the ‘ordinary voters’ posting questions was an imam who had previously posted vile tweets about Israel.
Mr Gove’s campaign manager Mel Stride played down the prospect of a co-ordinated vote-switching operation due to the narrow margin of the defeat.
‘It doesn’t seem to me on first observation of this that there has been,’ he said.
‘Because we didn’t see a situation where, as some had speculated, a very large number of votes might have transferred from say Boris Johnson to Jeremy Hunt.
‘It would appear to me everybody has behaved pretty much as one would hope they would.’
The battle to become Prime Minister will see the final two face a gruelling series of 16 hustings across the UK, starting in Birmingham on Saturday, and continuing up and down the country over the next month.
The final outcome of the leadership contest will not be known until the week beginning July 22, with the two remaining candidates taking part in a series of hustings in front of Tory members around the country before the votes are counted.
Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt will also take part in a head-to-head debate on ITV on July 9.
How Boris’s hitmen took out Gove: Hour by hour, the nods, winks and ‘dark dealings’ that helped Johnson’s backers hand him revenge over his most feared rival
The alcoves and recesses of the Palace of Westminster are built for plotting.
And early yesterday, as MPs arrived for the final two rounds in the Conservative leadership contest, the air was thick with conspiracy.
Certainly Team Michael Gove feared a plot was afoot, after a newspaper report that Boris Johnson’s camp wanted Mr Gove ‘humiliated’ in revenge for turning on their man in 2016. Back then, one Johnson ally said there was ‘a special place in hell’ reserved for Mr Gove. They hadn’t forgotten.
Yesterday, almost in anticipation, Gove supporters went on the offensive from the off, with one accusing Boris of wanting to ‘gerrymander’ the result.
Boris Johnson pictured n his office . He set out his vision saying he wants to do for the whole country what he did for the capital as Mayor of London
All fingers pointed at one man: Gavin Williamson, the former chief whip and Defence Secretary who seemed to revel in his reputation for Machiavellian dark arts
The theory was straightforward. Boris would prefer the run-off to be against Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who backed Remain in 2016, rather than Mr Gove, a fierce intellectual who has impeccable Brexiteer credentials. Indeeed in private, Team Gove believe the vote has been rigged all week.
They muttered darkly that Rory Stewart’s numbers were inflated to remove Dominic Raab, another Brexiteer threat to Boris, and Sajid Javid’s vote was pushed up to keep him in the race and stop his supporters going to Mr Gove.
Female Tory MP says colleague branded her a ‘disgrace’ and told her to leave the party
A Conservative Party MP who backed Rory Stewart in the contest to replace Theresa May has revealed how she was told to ‘leave the party’ by one of her colleagues.
Antoinette Sandbach, who represents Eddisbury in Cheshire, posted a screen grab from WhatsApp which she claimed was sent by a male Tory MP, calling her a ‘disgrace’.
She said she was travelling on the train when she received the messages.
According to Ms Sandbach: ‘Barely is the ink dry on the results and the dark ops begin. This from a male conservative MP to me as I sit on the train home.’
Ms Sandbach refused to name the MP, who she said had been ‘trawling’ through an old WhatsApp group and who she had removed for bullying a former colleague.
All fingers pointed at one man: Gavin Williamson, the former chief whip and Defence Secretary who seemed to revel in his reputation for Machiavellian dark arts.
There was another issue raising paranoia levels yesterday: the large number of proxy votes. Around ninety Tory MPs were not physically in the Commons.
Some were enjoying the Ascot races, others were in constituencies and nominated someone else to cast votes on their behalf. Apart from their proxy, no-one, not even the MPs themselves, would know where the vote had gone.
In plotting hands, this could be a powerful weapon. One senior campaign source warned: ‘It is always a good idea to trust someone whose interests align with your own.’
After seeing his vote collapse on Wednesday, Mr Stewart accused the Boris camp of sharp practice, saying ‘five or ten proxy votes’ had been lent to other campaigns.
Team Boris issued fervent denials, and insisted they just wanted to maximise their vote. One Boris supporter claimed Mr Stewart was bitter after his support ‘on Twitter’ didn’t translate into results, saying: ‘The truth hurts.’
Asked outside the voting room whether he knew anything about ‘dark arts’ Mr Johnson insisted: ‘No.’ When the first result came, at 1pm, it was good news for Mr Gove. Mr Johnson marched on to 157 – more than half the Tory parliamentary party – but Mr Gove had picked up ten votes, and was now two ahead of Mr Hunt.
Meanwhile Mr Javid was eliminated. Had the anti-Gove plot failed? Within minutes the Gove and Hunt camps were at each other’s throats.
A Hunt source issued a warning about the final round being dominated by the ‘personal psychodrama’ of Boris vs Gove.
Gove supporters desperately tried to neutralise the accusation, promising a ‘civilised debate’.
They also sought to ‘peel off’ Mr Johnson’s Brexiteers.
Gove campaign manager Mel Stride texted several MPs saying Mr Johnson was ‘secure in the final run off’ and they should consider backing Mr Gove so ‘we can have two Brexiteers in the final’. Where would Javid’s 34 votes go?
One Johnson supporter told the Mail, with a twinkle in his eye: ‘We’re not telling people to vote for Jeremy but if people feel inclined to go that way, what’s to stop them?’
Team Boris had good reason to be confident about their numbers holding up. For in a remarkable feat of organisation, they had successfully predicted exactly how many votes their man would get in two of the initial counts. The person running Mr Johnson’s ‘book’ of supporters was Grant Shapps, the former Tory chairman cast into the wilderness by Theresa May and later accused of over a botched plot to oust her.
Wizard of Oz pulls off another trick
Controversial election guru Sir Lynton Crosby is likely to make a reappearance if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister.
Sir Lynton, who masterminded Theresa May’s 2017 snap election failure, speaks to Mr Johnson every day, according to his colleagues. The strategist, known as the Wizard of Oz, has been conducting private polling for Mr Johnson in the expectation that he will run the next general election campaign.
He ran Mr Johnson’s two successful campaigns to be London mayor in 2008 and 2012.
However, he also ran Mrs May’s election disaster, which led to her losing a parliamentary majority and having to rely on the support of the DUP.
Earlier this week, Sir Lynton, pictured, said the next Tory leader must be ‘someone of character’. Speaking about whether the Tories could win a majority at the next election, he suggested a new leader in No 10 could ‘create the opportunity to be heard again’.
‘You need someone who can articulate the case. You need someone who has character. The most successful politicians today are those who have some element of character,’ Politics Home reported.
His Excel spreadsheet contained thousands of entries. Down one side were the names of all 313 Tory MPs and across pages and pages of data about them – personal biography, policy interests, political affiliations and records of whether they had met Mr Johnson, or spoken on the phone to him.
He also recorded which MPs were apparently backing his man. But how to tell which were telling the truth? Early in the contest, Mr Johnson had a core of trusted supporters who were sent out to gather information. Without always revealing who they were backing, they would ask MPs who they were voting for. By the end this army of ‘handlers’ grew to 70.
Friends of Mr Shapps said he had spent his time on the backbenches reading up on former US president Lyndon Johnson. LBJ said the first rule of politics was to ‘learn how to count’. It was a lesson Mr Johnson, and his team, learned well.
By yesterday, it meant Team Boris had a trove of information on every MP, and a good idea about how the votes would play out.
When the result came in at 6pm, Mr Hunt had beaten Mr Gove into second place by just two votes. Mr Gove issued a gracious concession message and congratulated the two winners. But his supporters screamed ‘carve up’.
‘If you are that far ahead you get to name your opponent. They knew which candidate they wanted in the final,’ said one. Beforehand, Mr Gove’s campaign estimated – correctly – that around a third of Javid votes would go their way, and the rest would go to Boris.
The final piece of evidence, which is hard to explain other than by vote lending, is that Mr Johnson’s total increased by four between the two rounds, fewer than the number of MPs who said publicly they would support him. A Johnson source insisted the claims were ‘nonsense’. But seasoned observers will suspect otherwise.
Trade Secretary (and Hunt backer) Dr Liam Fox smiled: ‘I’m sure it’s not organised. Perish the thought!’.
The Environment Secretary, whose campaign at one stage looked to be fatally damaged by his cocaine admission, had dramatically leapfrogged ahead of Mr Hunt in the fourth ballot earlier today.
But the Foreign Secretary managed to claw his way back to secure a place in the head-to-head by just two votes this evening, amid claims that he might have been ‘loaned’ backers by Mr Johnson to settle old scores.
Many of Mr Johnson’s acolytes have never forgiven Mr Gove for betraying him in the 2016 leadership contest, when he pulled his support at the last second and launched his own abortive bid.
There were gasps as the incredibly close result of the fifth ballot was announced in committee room 14 in Parliament this evening, with the front runner securing 160 votes, Mr Hunt 77 and Mr Gove 75.
The figures immediately fuelled rampant speculation about tactical voting, as Mr Johnson only increased his tally by three votes between the final rounds.
After Sajid Javid was eliminated this afternoon, at least four of his 34 supporters publicly declared they were going to back the favourite.
Mr Javid himself was also thought to have been ready to line up behind Mr Johnson – potentially in return for getting the plum post of Chancellor.
In contrast to Mr Johnson’s paltry haul in the final ballot, Mr Hunt gained 18 backers, and Mr Gove 14.
Mr Johnson’s allies had been accused of plotting an ‘Oxford Union knifing’ and the political equivalent of ‘revenge porn’ as they tried to stop Mr Gove getting into the run off.