OPINION - Tom Newton Dunn: The race for Tory leader has begun already — and it's a 16-way brawl

 (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
(Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

“The problem with my dear fellow Tory MPs is they all think they’re Winston Churchill,” a weary Cabinet minister told me this week. “Every single one of them.” Like many in the Conservative Party now, the minister has given up hope over the general election result.

It’s the next election campaign he’s fixated on — the Tory leadership contest that will start three weeks from today.

Sure as eggs is eggs, Rishi Sunak will resign as Conservative leader on Friday, July 5 — and probably before lunchtime, so strong is the anger at him among his own troops. If you thought the previous leadership contests were brutal, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Unchained from the veneer or respectability when the electorate release them from power, 10 years of tribal Tory feuding will finally explode into an almighty blood-fest. And it will be a fight to the death

Unchained from the veneer of respectability when the electorate release them from power, 10 years of tribal Tory feuding that began with the Brexit referendum will finally explode into an almighty blood-fest. And it will be a fight to the death.

First, the contenders. The number who fancy the job is already bigger than a full rugby team. Another former Tory MP and now candidate says he has counted 16 of his colleagues who are either considering or already actively planning a run.

I can throw one new name into the mix who is also now expected to enter the race — the Health Secretary Victoria Atkins. It could well be why Theresa May, out of the blue last week, named the rapid riser as the party’s best hope for the future.

The favourite remains Kemi Badenoch, who pulls in support from centrists as well as the Right. But she is far from a shoo-in. While she is an original and loved by the members, she can be bad-tempered and dismissive inside Westminster and is far less loved by Tory MPs. Dame Priti Patel and Suella Braverman are her two serious challengers from the party’s Right.

Tom Tugendhat is the One Nation wing’s leading candidate and friends say he will definitely run again. But even they put his chances at “10 to 20 per cent tops” because the membership is largely Right-wing. Gillian Keegan — and now Atkins — will compete with him for the dwindling centrist vote.

Other serious contenders may well be knocked out by the election result itself. Penny Mordaunt is in a desperate fight to hold her Portsmouth North seat, as is Grant Shapps in Welwyn Hatfield.

Robert Jenrick is the interesting dark horse, having started off as a moderate and now journeying fast to the Right. Another Tory minister says of him: “He’s an utter shit but could well come through the middle and win it. It’s happened before.” Jenrick isn’t a bad bet at the moment with odds of 9/1.

There will also be some spectacular skullduggery. Right-wingers are already plotting how to block Badenoch from making the final two. Likewise, the moderates will attempt to knock out Braverman. Much may therefore depend on the strength of each faction on the opposition green benches after July 4.

None of these games will change what has become the central question of the contest. It’s been bubbling away for months, but exploded into the public domain this week thanks to Braverman when she called on her party after the election to join forces with Nigel Farage. In other words, to unite Britain’s badly fractured political Right. And that’s where it will get really brutal.

“We’re a broad church, we’re not an Amazon warehouse,” was the retaliation from ex-Cabinet minister Sir Robert Buckland, whose moderate wing bitterly opposes any accommodation with Farage. This party isn’t big enough for the three of us.

The rub is it’s a binary question. One Nationers like Sir Robert and impassioned Right-wingers like Braverman will never agree on whether to join forces with the Brexit Party. Not just because of personalities, more fundamentally because the policy implications a merger would bring are existential for both wings: leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, libertarianism, the size and role of the welfare state.

To Farage or not to Farage, there can only be one answer, and only one winner. The losing Tory faction will find it very hard not to walk, and the Conservative Party will split — triggering a major and perhaps long-awaited alignment in British politics.

Party names may also change to reflect the shifted tectonic plates. The Balkanisation of British politics may also accelerate reform of the voting system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation, a direction many in Labour already support.

It’s all why a growing number of mournful Tories are predicting that three weeks from today, we will not just see the end of this Conservative government but the end of the last-ever Tory majority government. Change is coming indeed.

We’ve accidentally entered our Bogof Prime Minister era

David Cameron, Whitehall insiders say, has quietly assumed control of an awful lot of the Government’s foreign and security policy. So much so, that foreign ambassadors in London have taken to nicknaming him “the Foreign Prime Minister”.

There is sniping that Lord Cameron has decided on some key policy changes without even consulting No 10, such as his recent declaration that the UK was close to recognising Palestine as a nation.

And in meetings of the Cabinet, disgruntled other members even say he has started to sum up discussions, an authoritative role strictly reserved for the Prime Minister.

Most interesting of all, is all of this has happened apparently with the actual PM’s full blessing.

“Rishi just cares about domestic stuff. He’s happy to leave the rest to Dave, who just can’t help himself,” says one sniper.

So, albeit for only three more weeks, we’ve got two Prime Ministers for the price of one.

Streeting serves up the good stuff

Labour is not just leading in the polls, but is also winning the battle of the election bus snacks hands down.

The Tories’ coach stocks Haribos and has two ovens (both unused).

The snack drawer on Labour’s bus, however, has delighted travelling political hacks by also boasting cereal bars, Mini Cheddars, crisps, biscuits and KitKats.

On the long haul from Grimsby to Manchester on Wednesday night, booze was also served up by the onboard host of the night, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting.

Tom Newton Dunn is a political journalist, broadcaster and author