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.
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.
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.
Boris Johnson in his office today. Tory leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson sets out his vision saying he wants to do for the whole country what he did for the capital as Mayor of London and promises to reach out beyond Conservative voters
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
Mr Johnson (pictured being driven away from Parliament today) cemented his position as the overwhelming favourite by winning support from 160 MPs
Jeremy Hunt leaves the Houses of Parliament following the fifth this evening. He will now go head-to-head against Mr Johnson in the race to become the next Prime Minister
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.
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.
Michael Gove looked downcast as he left Parliament this evening having been knocked out of the Conservative leadership race
Gove, pictured leaving Parliament, narrowly came last in the voting missing out on the final round by two votes to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt
There are claims Mr Johnson’s allies helped evict Mr Gove (pictured left at Parliament today) from the contest, with Jeremy Hunt (right) taking the second spot in the run-off
Sajid Javid was eliminated after coming last in the latest ballot of MPs today – securing just 34 votes from MPs
At least four Javid supporters – Chris Skidmore, Kevin Foster, Chris Philp and Mike Wood – had publicly announced they were switching to the Johnson camp after their candidate was kicked out this afternoon.
Mr Gove put a brave face on the crushing disappointment tonoght, tweeting: ‘Naturally disappointed but so proud of the campaign we ran. Huge thanks to my brilliant campaign team.
‘It’s been an honour to be able to set out a vision for the future of our great country. Many congratulations to Boris and Jeremy!’
Mr Johnson said he was ‘deeply honoured’ to have secured endorsements from more than 50 per cent of Tory MPs.
Mr Hunt said Mr Gove was still one of the ‘brightest stars in the Conservative team’.
‘I’m the underdog – but in politics surprises happen as they did today,’ he added. ‘I do not doubt the responsibility on my shoulders – to show my party how we deliver Brexit and not an election, but also a turbo-charged economy and a country that walks tall in the world.’
Mr Javid said his party will need Mr Gove ‘more than ever to face the challenges ahead’ after the Environment Secretary was knocked out of the Tory leadership contest in the fifth round of voting.
The hopefuls were quickly looking to the next phase of the contest, with ITV announcing the first head-to-head televised debate on July 9. Mr Johnson said he had agreed to take part.
Mr Gove’s campaign manager Mel Stride declined to say that the vote had been rigged, but admitted the revelations about Mr Gove’s cocaine use two decades ago had damaged his leadership bid.
He said: ‘It stalled us and meant momentum was lost at that time.’
MPs were anxious about the prospect of continuing the long-running struggle between Mr Johnson and Mr Gove – whose rivalry stretches back to when they were at Oxford together.
Pitting them against each other in a month-long contest for votes from Tory members could see blue-on-blue attacks plunge to new depths.
Sources close to Mr Hunt tried to play on the fears earlier as he tried to reclaim the advantage, warning: ‘Boris and Michael are great candidates but we have seen their personal psychodrama before.
‘It’s time to offer the country someone the EU will actually talk to.’
The allegations of skulduggery risk pouring petrol on the simmering civil war that has been threatening to rip the Tories to pieces.
Rory Stewart, who was knocked out last night, has blamed ‘dark arts’ for his demise – with claims Johnson’s allies propped him up with votes to ensure rival Dominic Raab was evicted, before pulling their backing.
Cabinet minister Amber Rudd, who is campaigning for Mr Hunt, this morning urged Mr Johnson to condemn the ‘game playing’ by his fans.
But asked as he went in to vote today whether he knew anything about the ‘dark arts’, Mr Johnson merely smiled and said: ‘No.’ He refused to say whether he had voted for himself.
One Tory MP told MailOnline Mr Johnson’s supporters were ‘taking the p***’ and their ‘arrogance’ was alienating the wider party.
‘This is Oxford Union knifing. This is revenge porn. This is season two of some peculiarly bleak Nordic noir, where you don’t know in the final episode whether they are going to f*** each other or throttle each other,’ they said.
Mr Hunt also ramped up his rhetoric against the front runner, urging his colleagues to recognise the party ‘can do better than Boris’.
And underlining the warnings about the ‘psychodrama’ between the other candidates, he said: ‘Critical decision now for all colleagues is what choice do we present to the country? And what future?
‘Choose me for unity over division, and I will put Boris through his paces and then bring our party and country back together.’
Mr Johnson (pictured giving an interview in his office today) was jubliant after securing support from more than half of Tory MPs in the ballot today
The surge for Mr Gove, who added 10 to his tally in the ballot this afternoon, set alarm bells ringing among the Hunt team.
It is unclear how many votes Mr Hunt will be able to secure from Mr Javid’s support, given that the Home Secretary and his closest lieutenants are expected to line up behind Mr Johnson.
But there could be scope for Mr Johnson to deploy some of those backers to shut out Mr Gove.
The two men are said to have patched up their differences at a personal level, but the hatred between their respective camps is tangible.
Liam Fox, who is supporting Mr Hunt, told reporters this evening: ‘There’s more churn than the average washing machine.’
Asked if the ‘dark arts’ were being used to mobilise votes he replied: ‘Perish the thought.’
David Lidington, Mrs May’s effective deputy who was backing Mr Stewart, made clear he had not voted for Mr johnson. He said No Deal Brexit would be a serious problem for the integrity of the UK.
‘The Tory party is facing some existential political challenges, and the union of the United Kingdom is under greater strain than I have never known it in my lifetime,’ he said.
Mr Gove made a thinly-veiled pitch for support from Mr Javid after the result this afternoon, describing him as a ‘hero and a great friend’.
‘Well done @sajidjavid for a brilliant and inspirational campaign. You are a hero and a great friend. You have so much more to give the party and the country in the future,’ he tweeted.
Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb, a Javid supporter, said he hoped there had not been tactical voting.
He said it would ‘smack of hypocrisy’ for the party if it had taken place.
Mr Javid hailed Britain as a land of opportunity today in a moving statement after he was knocked out.
But he also took a swipe at his public-school educated rivals in the contest, saying he had made it in politics despite not having ‘private tutors’.
Mr Johnson received a boost from an unexpected quarter today with endorsement from the Evening Standard – edited by former chancellor George Osborne. Mr Osborne has been a trenchant critic of Brexit both in the Treasury and then as editor.
Meanwhile, Mr Stewart said former competitors have been in touch trying to win him over – but insisted he would not be backing anyone publicly.
‘I’ve been getting texts like you wouldn’t believe,’ he joked.
MPs loyal to Mr Johnson have been boasting about plotting the Environment Secretary’s downfall, with one gleefully vowing to ‘humiliate’ him.
Mr Johnson’s team have approached Mr Javid – who came fourth in the ballot yesterday – to become chancellor, according to allies of the home secretary.
Maverick leadership hopeful Mr Stewart was dramatically booted from the contest yesterday after coming last with just 27 votes – down from 37 on Monday – leaving four hopefuls left to fight it out.
Mr Johnson picked up support from Mr Raab, who was evicted in the previous round, to increase his tally again from 126 to 143 – tightening his grip on the keys to Downing Street.
In that round, Mr Hunt came second with 54 votes, Mr Gove came third with 51, and Mr Javid fourth on 38.
Mr Johnson’s supporters believe that facing Mr Hunt in the final two would be easier than taking on Mr Gove.
Many of Johnson’s team have a ‘visceral hatred’ for the environment secretary and were directly accused by Mr Stewart of dirty tricks yesterday.
One Tory MP said: ‘This is Oxford Union knifing. This is revenge porn.
‘This is season two of some peculiarly bleak Nordic noir, where you don’t know in the final episode of season two whether they are going to f*** each other or throttle each other.’
The MP said the ‘Machiavellis’ on Johnson’s team were hard at work.
‘This is revenge day today. Have you ever seen a cat play with a mouse? Johnson is purring and Gove is the squeaker,’ they said.
Mr Johnson tweeted his delight at topping the ballot again today. Mr Javid thanked his supporters (right) as he bowed out of the race
Mr Hunt (pictured out running today) has been in second place in the first three Tory ballots – but fell behind Mr Gove in the latest vote meaning there is all to play for
‘It has (added excitement) if you like Tory melodrama. You have to see Johnson with a top hat, cape and twirly moustache and poor old Gove lashed to the railway line whilst the flying Scotsman comes thundering down.’
However, the MP said the machinations were not going down well in the MPs’ tea room at Westminster – or with the wider public.
‘I think people in the country find it bizarre, but then politics is in such a bizarre place,’ they said.
‘I think colleagues here find it distasteful. They find it arrogant. They think the Johnson campaign is taking the piss. If you want to win you maximise your vote and don’t play silly buggers.’
Johnson supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg said any ‘dirty tricks’ vote transfer campaign by supporters of the former foreign secretary to try and knock Michael Gove out of the contest would be ‘silly’.
Mr Rees-Mogg said: ‘I think people should always vote for the candidate they support. ‘It is really silly to try and game elections because you can find that your candidate then loses. ‘Vote for the candidate you support is what I have been saying on my side of the argument.’
Speaking ahead of the vote, Mr Stewart told reporters the former defence secretary Gavin Williamson, who is organising Mr Johnson’s campaign, was encouraging Johnson-supporting MPs to lend their votes to other candidates to manipulate the contest in a bid to determine who he would face in the final run-off.
He told reporters: ‘There’s also the dark arts. Gavin Williamson’s proxy votes, which we don’t know about.
‘There are dark arts in politics and they’re done with proxy votes, they’re not done with someone saying ‘would you please vote for this person’.’
Ms Rudd told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I find all this conversation about lending votes rather discrediting of the system.
‘I would really call on Boris himself to repudiate the information that is coming out of ‘friends of Boris’, saying this, saying one thing.’
Ms Rudd, who backs Jeremy Hunt in the race for Downing Street, added: ‘This is a serious moment. We don’t need that sort of game playing going on in Parliament.’
Philip Hammond will today urge Mr Johnson to keep open the option of a second referendum to break the Brexit deadlock and pledge to ‘fight’ against No Deal.
In a pessimistic intervention, the Chancellor will warn that the next Prime Minister will not be able to secure a better deal with the European Union and MPs will block any attempt at a No Deal exit.
Mr Hammond will signal his agreement with Mr Stewart that Mrs May’s deal is the best the EU will offer.
As a result, ‘other democratic mechanisms’ may be needed. Allies said he was suggesting either a general election or second referendum.
The remarks, due to be made today in his annual Mansion House speech to senior bankers and financiers in the City of London, will make Mr Hammond the most senior Conservative to endorse the idea of a second vote on Brexit – and will enrage hardline Tory Brexiteers.
They will be seen as a suggestion he could help to bring down a Boris led-government if it sought to pursue No Deal, by backing Labour in a confidence vote.
Calling on all the candidates to be ‘honest with the public’ Mr Hammond will urge them to set out an alternative if their plan A is ‘undeliverable’.
He will say: ‘If the new Prime Minister cannot end the deadlock in Parliament, then he will have to explore other democratic mechanisms to break the impasse.
Because if he fails, his job will be on the line – and so, too, will the jobs and prosperity of millions of our fellow citizens.’
The Chancellor will say that the parliamentary arithmetic will not change unless there is an election, Parliament will block No Deal, and will not support the withdrawal deal as it stands.
As the domestic drama raged, the challenge facing the next PM was underlined by comments from Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte.
Ahead of an EU summit in Brussels today, Mr Rutte said the next prime minister needs to realise Brexit would ‘diminish’ the UK and No Deal would be even worse.
With a hard Brexit, even with a normal Brexit, the UK will be a different country,’ he told the Today programme.
‘It will be a diminished country. It is unavoidable.’
Mr Stewart would not say who he voted for and insisted he had voted both times today and had not spoiled his ballot.
When pressed on whether he or his supporters would back Michael Gove, currently second in the running, he said waiting journalists were ‘charmers, all of you’.
Speaking as he waited to enter the room to vote, Mr Hunt, currently in third place after the morning tally, said he was feeling ‘confident but not overconfident… Realistic’.
Mr Javid’s statement said: ‘I will continue to focus on my responsibilities in the Home Office and reflect on whether to offer my support to another candidate. There are very challenging times ahead for our party, our government and our country. The Conservatives must continue to be a broad church if we are to deliver Brexit, bring change while in government, and beat Corbyn at the next election.
‘The three remaining candidates have earned their places in the final round. I wish them well in the weeks ahead and – whoever becomes Prime Minister – I urge my colleagues to get behind them as a team. If I can contribute to these efforts and serve my country in any way I will certainly do so.
‘If my ambition and conduct in this contest has set an example for anyone, then it has been more than worth it. This is my message to those children growing up as I did. To kids who look and feel a bit different to their classmates. Those who don’t have many toys or private tutors. Those who feel like outsiders and wonder whether ‘opportunity’ is just for other people…
‘Work hard, have faith in your abilities, and don’t let anyone try and cut you down to size or say you aren’t a big enough figure to aim high. You have as much right as anyone to a seat at the top table, to be ambitious for yourself, and to make your voice heard. So seize every opportunity that this wonderful country presents to you with both hands. Your – and our – best days lie ahead.’
Mr Gove and Mr Johnson’s time at Oxford University overlapped – and that is where their rivalry goes back to
Boris Johnson (pictured at his London home today) is guaranteed to make the final two in the Tory leader contest – with Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove fighting over who will take him on
Did Theresa May spoil her ballot paper? Mystery as TWO votes in Tory leadership race are declared null and void
The hunt is on for two Tory MPs branded ‘numpties’ who spoiled their ballot papers in the vote to elect the next prime minister today – with suspicion even falling on Theresa May herself.
As in every previous round 313 votes were cast in the fourth round of votes this morning. But for the first time not all of them counted towards one of the four remaining candidates.
With just two votes separating second placed Michael Gove and challenger Jeremy Hunt, the spoiled papers could have had an impact on which opponent of front-runner Boris Johnson was seen to have the most momentum.
The ballot taking place in parliament is secret and many MPs have refused to say who they are backing.
Theresa May, pictured in Brussels today, has repeatedly told reporters that how she has cast her vote was ‘none of your business’
They include Mrs May, who has declined to reveal who she is tipping to follow her in taking on one of the biggest jobs in world politics.
When journalists asked her this morning who she voted for, Mrs May said: ‘I have answered this question the same way every time I have come out, and I think you know the same answer today.
‘You can probably chant it with me in unison – ”none of your business”.’
Mrs May’s predecessor David Cameron refused to vote in the leadership ballot which elected her.
Suspicion has also fallen on two of the supporters of moderate candidate Rory Stewart who refused to back the others because of their support for a No Deal Brexit.
Boris Johnson supporter Mark Francois said it was up in the air which Cabinet minister would fight the ex-foreign secretary in the run-off to be decided by party members, stating: ‘The other thing that every MP wants to know is who were the two numpties who spoilt their ballot papers?
‘Wrong on every level’: Furious Brexiteers turn on Chancellor Philip Hammond as he backs second referendum as option to break deadlock and vows to ‘fight and fight’ against No Deal
Tory Eurosceptic MPs have attacked Philip Hammond as the Chancellor prepares to use a speech this evening to urge the next prime minister to consider holding a second Brexit referendum.
The Chancellor is expected to tell City of London chiefs that Theresa May’s deal remains the best way for the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion.
He will suggest that if that deal cannot get through Parliament then Mrs May’s successor will have to consider ‘other democratic mechanisms’ to resolve the impasse.
He will also vow to ‘fight and fight’ against No Deal in comments seen as a direct challenge to Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to be the next Tory leader, who has suggested he would take the UK out of the EU on October 31 with or without an agreement.
Chancellor Philip Hammond (pictured) will urge Boris Johnson to keep the option of a second EU referendum open to break Brexit deadlock
But the intervention has sparked fury among Tory Brexiteers who are vehemently opposed to holding a second referendum.
Simon Clarke, a Conservative Eurosceptic MP, said: ‘This is wrong on every level. Wrong because it would shatter faith in politics.
‘Wrong because it would usher in a ruinous Government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
‘And wrong because it would not bring resolution to the issue – if a second referendum, why not a third? Terrible.’