Rory Stewart was the latest casualty in the Tory leadership contest as he failed to pick up enough support from MPs and was eliminated in Wednesday’s third ballot.
That leaves a field of four, which will be reduced to two by Thursday’s final ballot of MPs, and if the betting markets are any judge, it is likely to be Jeremy Hunt who joins Boris Johnson on the ballot paper for the final stage of the process, in which Tory members pick the ultimate winner.
So far, Johnson has seemed determined to keep a low profile, with few public appearances and an unmemorable performance at Tuesday’s BBC debate. But that hasn’t appeared to hurt his chances, and he remains an overwhelming favourite in the Next Conservative Leader markets, where he is generally available at 1/10, having shortened dramatically from 7/4 and 6/4 two weeks ago.
The departure of Stewart from the race raises the interesting question of which candidate will claim the majority of his supporters. Given that the International Development Secretary was the least Brexity of the five, it seems unlikely that Johnson or Michael Gove will be the beneficiaries, and with Sajid Javid trailing the field, Hunt appears the most likely destination for Stewart supporters.
That helps to explain why Hunt’s position in the betting markets has been strengthening over the last twenty-four hours. He is now available at 10/1 or 12/1 in some places, making him the clear second favourite ahead of Michael Gove, who can be backed at 18/1.
There has also been persistent speculation that Johnson would prefer to be up against Hunt in the final membership ballot rather than Gove, who could match him for Brexit credentials and membership popularity or Javid, who is something of an unknown. That has also led to suggestions that Johnson supporters could switch to support Hunt on Thursday.
Such a manoeuvre would make sense, but it also comes with some risks. Hunt would be a big outsider with Tory members, but he is a durable, relatively consistent and controversy-free candidate, and as the Labour Party discovered back in 2015, lending votes to an apparent no-hoper candidate can lead to unexpected results.