Tory leadership: A weird start to the first day of the contest

Leadership contenders Dominic Raab (centre) and Matt Hancock (right) at launch of new book on Brexit Image copyright PA
Image caption Rival candidates Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock enjoy a new book about Brexit

Early this morning it seemed unlikely that the first official day of the contest to be the next prime minister would involve Judge Rinder and Lorraine Kelly.

Sure, neither of them had a starring role.

Rinder turned up at Matt Hancock's launch event - one of two at London's South Bank Centre - to support his friend and, he told me, to give a "character reference". In doing so, he enjoyed the light techno with the rest of the small, if perfectly formed crowd.

Lorraine Kelly, one of the queens of the morning TV sofas, possibly gave the day's most brutal slap down of any of the candidates when she was asked about her former colleague, Esther McVey.

Even without these cameos this is a strange process.

MPs spend a couple of weeks passing judgement on their colleagues, before the final duo pass to the Conservative membership, a group of less than 200,000 political activists who will make a decision that will affect every single one of us.

Tory members, just like Labour members, are not as painted in primary colours as the clich├ęs would have you believe.

But they are different to most of us in one simple way - they are involved in politics as a hobby or passion, which marks them out from the vast majority of the population.

And while they are not all Brexiteers they are much more likely to be of that persuasion. That matters a lot right now given Parliament's failure to agree on a compromise.

It's strange too because all of the candidates so far seem to be saying that Labour is likely to win the general election if the Tories can't get Brexit sorted out. That may be what they believe. That may be true. But at the very least, it's a hypothesis not a fact.

And can you imagine in any other context or political climate, a political leader telling the public that if their party can't get one thing right, victory is certain for the other side?

It's pretty odd. And if of course the eventual victor of this race ends up crashing into a general election because, like Theresa May, they come unstuck, how will those quotes stand up then?

The race is weird as well because the front runner's team is actively trying to keep him out of it for now. There is a very concerted effort by Boris Johnson's team not to stuff up his initial advantage, in the words of one, to "stop him doing mad things".

But it's not so strange, in a way, because that is how Mr Johnson's supporters argue he would run the government.

The idea is that he could provide the pizzazz and profile to energise his party, and the government. But the day-to-day grind of running the government would be down to others. The model as I've heard it described countless times is that he would be the chairman, not the chief executive.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Judge Rinder added a bit of celebrity glamour to Matt Hancock's launch

Any politician who tells you they wouldn't like to have even a sprinkle of the former foreign secretary's stardust is likely not to be telling you the truth. For good or ill, whether they love or hate him, he is not a politician that is easy to ignore.

And that's why MPs who think some of his ideas are bonkers are now signed up to be part of his team. They believe he can win, and they want to be part of it, if even to restrain his excess.

I expect that Boris Johnson will make a big appearance later this week when the chatter around Westminster about him hiding away will recede. But there is a reason that he has, relatively speaking, been out of sight, and it demonstrates the nervousness among even his supporters about the chances of a race-ending gaffe.

And don't doubt, there are fears in the wider Tory party about what would happen if he won. The normally mild-mannered David Lidington came out to back Matt Hancock tonight.

But what did he say when I asked him whether he would be comfortable if Boris Johnson won?

He didn't quite spell it out, but he also said MPs and Tory members have to ask themselves if the potential leader "has the welfare of your family at heart when making decisions?"

"Is this somebody you would feel comfortable about in a security crisis?" he added. "These require qualities of temperament and judgement."

The current de facto deputy prime minister didn't look too comfortable with the idea of a Johnson government to me.

What was not strange today was the well-organised, slick event put on by Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, even though his potential path to success is definitely narrower and rockier than it was a while ago.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Esther McVey made it clear which former prime minister she hopes to emulate

Neither was the solid performance by the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, joined by much of the Tory establishment at his event almost next door to his swanky official residence.

And it was also not surprising to see a flash of the animosity between Michael Gove and Boris Johnson at the former's launch event - rivals in 2016, and rivals now.

Mr Gove needed to find a way to move on from the weekend's admissions about cocaine use. Flaunting a bit of that agonising history might have been useful alongside what we would also expect from him, a long list of what he would like to do.

It may certainly prove useful for Jeremy Hunt, and the Home Secretary Sajid Javid too, to stand aside from the brutal baggage between those two.

One senior member of the cabinet told me they would not back either of those 2016 Vote Leave campaigners in the hope of blocking both Gove and Johnson from moving into No 10 and continuing a toxic rivalry that in their view at least, "could destroy the government".

There is still a long way to go in this race. Who knows how much momentum some of the less well known candidates might be able to generate?

Rory Stewart has created a big buzz on social media. Mark Harper promises he will properly answer all journalists' questions (a noble ambition!).

Andrea Leadsom, as former leader of the House, is confident that she could find a way out of the Brexit maze. There is no question Esther McVey is clear about sticking to the Brexit deadline - a commitment that is popular with many activists.

But the ten might be whittled down quite fast, the hurdles higher as each day of the contest passes with plenty more unlikely events to come.

PS. While the Tories are fighting this out, Labour is not only watching on benignly.

MPs report that at their not so regular meeting with Jeremy Corbyn tonight, tempers flared, including his, over the party's Brexit confusion, anti-Semitism, and the treatment of harassment allegations.

Of course Labour in parliament has not been a happy ship for a long time. But what seems to be increasingly the case is that those who had faith in him are feeling shaky with even some loyal MPs questioning him, and deep unhappiness among members.

One senior figure in the party told me things are "volatile" and "toxic". However bad things have been for Mr Corbyn before, he has always been able to rely on the membership.

Even though the Tories are preoccupied with this race, Labour MPs are well aware that may not always be the case.

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