Now that Rory Stewart has gone from joke candidate to probable former spy who has a shot of making it to the final two of the Tory leadership contest, how do the other candidates deal with him? As James explains, Stewart’s best hope of getting through the next rounds is to bleed votes from Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt.
Those two have in the past few days turned their attention from Boris Johnson and onto Stewart as they fear that he has a real chance of making it into the final two. The attack line from those candidates is that Stewart would cause a ‘polarising’ contest with plenty of ‘blue-on-blue action’ (which has the odd effect of implying that they wouldn’t spend the final round of the contest arguing with Johnson), and that he cannot unite the party. It is true that Stewart doesn’t yet have the backing of a single Brexiteer, which hardly suggests he would bring the Conservatives back together. He also owes much of his rise to his vociferous attacks on Boris Johnson, which may well attract more MPs as the contest progresses over the next couple of days, but also does aggravate the split in the party. So Gove, Hunt and Sajid Javid could unite in asking how Stewart is going to stop Tory wars.
They might also want to point out Stewart’s relative lack of experience, as both of them have served in the cabinet for a number of years, while the International Development post is considered rather junior and Stewart has only held it for a few months.
But attacking Stewart means it is harder to work on undermining Johnson’s appeal to the membership, which will be the most important thing for anyone who ends up in the final two and which cannot be left to that final round of the contest. The BBC hustings is already underway, and this will be a key opportunity to start getting out messages designed for the membership rather than MPs. So the dilemma for the candidates tonight is: do they focus on stopping Boris, or stopping Rory?