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The Tory race is crowded but there is value there

June 1st, 2019

Even after the recent lengthening of his odds, Boris is still over-fancied

When a dozen candidates declare their candidacy for a party leadership, it’s not a sign of strength. Certainly, it’s entirely possible to go too far the other way and allow a flawed but dominant candidate in by default, but an excess of candidates points to a lack of confidence in the leading runners among the second string.

There are, of course, other reasons why also-rans might give the race a shot, most obviously the chance to seek to trade support for office or policies after being knocked out, and the possibility that the race may develop in unexpected ways and deliver a shock result. All the same, a healthy Tory leadership election would have no more than 5 or 6 candidates standing.

The first thing to note then is the lack of confidence in Boris – both in that rivals adopting more-or-less the same positions are standing but also in his lack of endorsements. For someone who’s been seen as, and wanting to be seen as, the favourite for years to be still short of 30 endorsements more than a week after May announced her intention to resign is poor going. The way for favourites to win is to demonstrate their strength. Yes, that makes them the target but anything else just makes them look weak.

Boris’s shadow campaign should have been preparing for this moment and should have had 40-50 MPs ready to declare within days. That this didn’t happen suggests both a lack of organisation (we’ve heard that before) but also probably a lack of opportunity: perhaps there just aren’t any more Boris backers at this stage – which makes his future look decidedly doubtful. Boris’s odds have drifted markedly and he can now be backed at 9/4, though even that looks skinny to me.

We do know that of the four in the leading pack, two others – Raab and Gove – were Leavers back in 2016, as were some of the smaller fry. The question is how will these transfer? Will it be a clean Leave / Remain split or will there be cross-over? In fact, even looking at the endorsements now, it’s clear that there is already the potential for crossover with Gove and Javid having the most balanced endorsements among the 15+ crowd. Javid has drifted to 25/1 and there may be some value there.

The one candidate who doesn’t yet have endorsements from both sides of the Brexit divide is Matt Hancock, whose 11 supporters are all Remainers. Some have tipped Hancock as a dark horse who could be transfer-friendly. If he’s to make good on that, he’ll need to do more to attract the Leave crowd, not just on Brexit but perhaps in style too. He has come over a bit funky vicar so far.

So where is this contest going? At the moment, I’d say the two strongest candidates are Raab (22 endorsements, 8/1), and Gove (27 endorsements, 7/2). It’s notable that Gove is picking up more Remainers than Leavers, despite having been such a public face of the Leave campaign. Presumably he’s still not been forgiven for knifing Boris and then standing himself, nor for not having resigned from the cabinet. However, this isn’t a bad thing, particularly is Raab is seen as the non-nutcase, non-Boris Leave option.

So far, only half the Con MPs have declared their support so we shouldn’t read too much into the endorsement tallies. All the same, there’s no reason to assume that they‘re not broadly indicative. Where then does that leave Jeremy Hunt, currently leading the pack (just) with 29 declared supporters? Well, his 16/1 certainly looks to be worth a covering bet if only because those numbers mean there’s a good chance he’ll go quite a long way into the contest. All the same, I don’t really see his positive USP in the race.

Once again, this looks like being a Tory leadership race where the favourite doesn’t get it.

David Herdson