Let me let you in on a dirty secret. An awful lot of lawyers are terrified of maths. They can make words sit up and beg, but put them in front of a formula and they quiver. When the rate of VAT rose to 20%, many lawyers were privately delighted because the calculation was so much easier to do. Nevertheless, I have maths ahead. You have been warned.
The Conservative party leadership race is conducted under unusual rules. The Parliamentary party conducts an exhaustive ballot – a game of musical chairs where another seat is taken away each round – until only two candidates are left (the losers hope for party bags later). The last two candidates then face off in a head to head with an entirely different electorate: the Conservative party membership.
In reality this election process is two different contests. Since the final arbiters are the Conservative party members, they may or may not view things similarly to the Parliamentary Conservative party. The Labour party experience in 2015 is instructive, where a candidate who only scrambled to make the cut with the Parliamentary party stormed to victory with the membership.
The consequence of this is that the order in which the last two candidates finish in the penultimate round doesn’t matter all that much. Getting into the last two is all that matters. In 2001 Iain Duncan Smith got into the last two by one vote. He then beat Kenneth Clarke decisively among the members. A candidate doesn’t need to worry about winning the majority of his fellow MPs’ support. He or she just needs enough Parliamentary support to be able to display his or her charms to the membership.
What this means is that any aspiring party leader wants to get into the last two against an opponent who the membership can be expected to like less. Most candidates will be focussing on the first half of that sentence: getting into the last two. The frontrunner might well be focussing on the second half: engineering an opponent who they can expect to beat when the members have their say.
Let’s put a name on this problem: Boris Johnson. The external evidence suggests that many of his fellow MPs would rather gargle glass than see him become party leader. How many MPs need to be in this group to stop him?
The Conservative party has 316 MPs. A candidate in the last three can guarantee making the final two by getting the support of more than a third of the MPs. So the support of 106 MPs in the final round would get any candidate into the last two.
In practice, fewer MPs will probably suffice unless there’s some finessing. If the leading candidate gets the support of 150 MPs, you will make the last two with the backing of 84 MPs. If the leading candidate gets the support of 175 MPs, you will make the last two with the backing of just 71 MPs. Theresa May picked up the support of 200 MPs in the last round in 2016. An equally dominant candidate would make second place achievable on just 59 MPs.
So it doesn’t matter if there are over 200 Conservative MPs who cordially loathe Boris Johnson (and there might well be). What matters is how many either like him or see him as the best of a bad bunch if it comes to the last three. If he gets through that test, he is going to be considered very seriously by the membership.
Can he be stopped? Imagine for a moment that at the time of the leadership election you are the Home Secretary. You have managed to present yourself as a fresh start in a difficult role, offering policy observations on a wide range of public topics. You have managed to straddle the Leave/Remain divide among MPs, making you hope for some very senior endorsements and confident that you can get into the last two. If it were down to the MPs, you might well consider yourself home and hosed.
But it isn’t. The members will have their say and there are plenty of indications that the membership are not looking for nuance or straddling Leave/Remain divides. They might well prefer a St George to slay Remainian dragons or, failing a knight on a white charger, a mop on a publicity-loving journalist. The majority of Conservative MPs might have definitively decided that Boris Johnson is not fit to be leader of the Conservative party. But if he makes the last two, they might find him foisted on them. You need not one but two stop-Boris candidates.
How could our putative Home Secretary avoid this personal and party disaster? If he has enough support at his disposal, he might seek to lend some of it to a more beatable opponent. If there were a leading Leaver who is not telegenic, widely disliked by the public and now deeply distrusted by the more intense members of the Leave community who nevertheless had a fair support base in the parliamentary party, he might feel confident that the membership would prefer him to such a candidate.
How feasible is this strategy? Lending support to other candidates is an obviously dangerous game. No candidate will want to risk missing out completely and so any candidate contemplating such a tactic will want to build in a margin for safety. Also, any such tactic would almost certainly leak. That would be unlikely to impress a membership if it thought it was being deprived by jiggery-pokery of a choice that it wanted to make.
For myself, I wouldn’t want to risk going below 130 MPs if I were in pole position, and then only if I really feared one possible opponent. That would mean that the next candidate would need 94 MPs. In a last three of Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, my guess is that Boris Johnson number is likely to get closer to 100 MPs’ support than 50 and that he might well make the last two whatever gaming of the system his opponents try to work out between them.
There is another way. To be in the last three, a candidate first needs to get through earlier rounds. If a steadier hardline Leaver can be persuaded to stand (Andrea Leadsom maybe?), Boris Johnson might fall at an earlier hurdle if he had insufficient first preferences. Better yet, get three or four to stand and the chances of the most dangerous opponent falling out early are much improved. It’s not enough to be acceptable to a sufficiently large constituency of Conservative MPs, you have to be actively wanted by enough to get through the early stages.
So those first few rounds of musical chairs play a purpose too. It might be rather easier and more effective for a frontrunner discreetly to loan support to an unfeared rival at an early stage to get rid of that inconvenient Mr Johnson. From the viewpoint of the Conservative establishment, there might well be more than one way to skin a cat.