Wit happens when the “most double, lying electorate you’ve ever encountered” holds an internal competition via secret ballots that are breathlessly covered by the media with the country’s fate at stake?
The description of those currently deciding who could be the next prime minister, from former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, explains why there has been a stream of blue-on-blue attacks, “dark art” and betrayal for a long time. held loyalties over the past week.
After MPs finally managed to oust the prime minister, the relief of being able to elect a new leader was only a moment before the internal strife began again.
“In terms of attacks on candidates, it’s going to be a long, hot summer,” predicts Nadine Dorries, the secretary of culture, after an already bruised mudslide.
Another minister reflected: “In the beginning, it was about choosing a candidate based on their vision, lofty ideals and philosophy. Over the weekend, that will change as people begin to unite instead of who they want to block. to become Prime Minister. “
With the leadership election due to end on 5 September, it will only take place a few more days behind closed doors in Parliament’s framework. It will then spill over across the country as the two remaining finalists battle for the support of Tory members.
The journey has so far been dominated by briefing and counter-briefing, as the front-runners keep an eye on trying to squeeze followers out of those behind, and another in picking those backing up their closest rivals.
Candidates try to keep things civil on the surface, but allies and outriders are free to act more independently – usually under the guise of anonymity.
Rishi Sunak has won the most accolades from MPs, but has also attracted significant levels of vitriol. A figure in a rival camp called him a “quisling” because they believed a high-ranking member of the former chancellor’s camp had spread lies about their candidate.
Dorries, who backs Liz Truss, accused Sunak’s team of “dark art” of allegedly trying to get an easily affordable candidate into the last two with him, and suggested that Dominic Cummings support him.
A government source said: “For six months we had to make these huge cost-of-living decisions, and all the while Rishi had this filter in his head and thought about how they would play in relation to his own leadership prospects – it’s damn shocking.”
Sunak supporters have tried to put on a brave face, expressing that they would follow Michelle Obama’s response to Donald Trump’s attacks: “When they go low, we go high.”
Mark Spencer, the Commons leader and one of four former chief whips who support Sunak, said this week that he did so in part because “there are no skeletons in that closet.”
Such are the efforts to ensure that Sunak remains immaculate, that fervent supporters undertook to organize chaperoning of him around Parliament. A WhatsApp group called “the walkers” was set up by MPs to coordinate the meeting and the transport of the former chancellor between events to avoid him being chained by colleagues and journalists.
In particular, Penny Mordaunt, who surprised many MPs by beating Liz Truss in the first and second rounds of voting – and topping a YouGov poll among party members – has been the victim of a particularly vicious briefing.
Former Brexit minister David Frost, a Truss supporter, claimed Mordaunt had been a deficient deputy and he had asked Johnson to move her; Suella Braverman wasted no time in dropping the race to attack Mordaunt over women’s rights.
“The responsible minister, I’m afraid, did not run for women,” Braverman said as he discussed drafting a maternity rights bill for ministers last year, claiming Mordaunt had not wanted the words “mother” or “woman”. “. ” to be included. Braverman later threw her weight behind Truss, and is expected to take many of her followers with her.
Asked about the briefing against her on Sky News last Friday, Mordaunt described it as “black ops” and said: “People are obviously trying to prevent me from getting to the finals because they do not want to run against me.” She added: “You will see in my campaign that I am not involved in any of it.”
In response to Frost’s high insistence that he would not serve in a Mordaunt government, backbencher Simon Hoare wrote on Twitter: “Who the hell is an unelected, failed minister to tell a Member of Parliament what to do? By a for some unknown reason, David Frost constantly thinks we’re giving a flying xxxx what he thinks. We do not and we will not. “
It may not compete with the drama of Michael Gove stabbing Johnson in the back in 2016, but some loyalties have already been thrown aside as the prime minister’s time in office is coming to an end.
Conor Burns, a minister in the Northern Ireland office and such a staunch supporter that he claimed Johnson had been “assaulted with a cake”, was rejected last week for promotion to the more senior cabinet post when he was left by Brandon Lewis .
Mordaunt strongly supported Jeremy Hunt’s 2019 campaign, but he refused to support her bid and instead rowed in behind Sunak.
Sajid Javid was rejected by his former wingman, Finance Minister John Glen, who supports Sunak, while Finance Ministry chief secretary Simon Clarke supports Truss.
A lawmaker who supported Javid in the previous leadership race said that after failing to secure a seat in the first ballot – having gathered only 12 of the 20 required supporters – Javid turned to them with tears in his eyes. eyes and asked to know why they had not done it again.
One of the defining elements of such contests is how they make any interested MP a sudden supporter of game theory, plotting multiple narratives whereby the fall of a rival could help their chosen favorite, a pastime that reaches a crescendo in the corridor outside the committee rooms where Members of Parliament cast their votes.
In the second round, Thursday lunchtime, an ally of Truss frantically presented the idea to waiting journalists that Braverman and Kemi Badenoch were convicted and therefore should “acknowledge reality” and throw their lot behind Truss, as a unified candidate for Tory. right.
Less than a minute later, Braverman, as always overshadowed by her campaign manager, Steve Baker, was busy insisting to the same journalists that she was destined for the next round and thus a place in the upcoming TV debates. When viewers got a chance to see Braverman’s arguments first hand, “all bets are off,” Baker predicted. Hours later, the attorney general was knocked out of the race, leaving a final five.
While attention is focused on the final stages of the parliamentary part of the leadership election, MPs fear a brutal weekend. Sources in the 1922 committee, which set the rules for the short competition, admitted that it was deliberately designed to take place from Wednesday to Wednesday, allowing Sunday newspapers to interrogate and “weed out” awkward political views and past behaviors. . Some camps are so concerned about the dirt that rivals are throwing at them that several are said to have hired media lawyers.
Closely-watched TV debates will also allow lesser-known candidates like Mordaunt, Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat to be put through their paces, with each camp suggesting that their rivals would likely fight under the spotlight.
The effort will only grow when the candidates are cut down to two. “Some grenades will be stored for August,” an MP said. “You can’t use all your ammunition on people just in the knockout rounds.”
Despite the humiliating nature of Johnson’s fall, he is still said to be desperate to regain the popularity he gained during the breathtaking heights of the 2019 election campaign.
A No. 10 source suggested he thought he could “make a Churchill” and make a comeback and strike again if the new Tory leader loses the next election and resigns. Another Johnson loyalist said he was “still very angry” and would likely accept Sunak if he emerged as the next leader.
But the privilege committee’s call for a lot of evidence on Friday, as it launches its investigation into Partygate, was a reminder that he and the broader Conservative party will be pursued by the legacy of his chaotic premiership for some time to come.