Tory leadership: Johnson camp relieved at Gove exit

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

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If you are looking for drama, the Conservative Party rarely disappoints.

If you are looking for stability these days, that's a different matter.

To absolutely no one's surprise, Boris Johnson's march to Number 10 has taken a giant stride.

Love him or loathe him, he is the biggest political star in this contest, and he persuaded his colleagues by a handsome margin that he's meant for the highest office in the land.

The number of votes he received increased again, up to 160 this time, more than half of the parliamentary party.

The gasps in central lobby when the result emerged though were not because of his stellar lead, but down to the wafer-thin margin in the race to be his challenger.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Mr Johnson's companion on the referendum campaign trail before he sabotaged his leadership bid, received 75 votes.

That's quite something when you consider just 10 days ago he was under the cosh over revelations of taking cocaine when he was working as a journalist.

But Jeremy Hunt, the former Remainer and current Foreign Secretary, won 77 votes - so close you can almost hear the squeak.

Now, there's no doubt that Mr Johnson is, at this stage (and there's a long way to go), widely expected to end up in Number 10.

But this result is an enormous relief to his camp, for the simple reason that they think Mr Hunt is easier to beat.

Forget any differences in style between the two challengers and their comparative talents - Jeremy Hunt voted Remain in the EU referendum.

And for many Tory members it is a priority for the next leader to have been committed to that cause, rather than a recent convert, however zealous.

media captionBoris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove are voted through to the final round of the Tory leadership race

Of course, pay attention to recent political history. Upsets are the norm. Outsiders become insiders. Strange things happen, and that's before you price in Mr Johnson's ability to cause havoc for himself.

But this result has left Mr Johnson's camp hugely relieved.

One of his most committed backers was laughing with joy and savouring not a little bit of revenge when I talked to them.

Memories and suspicion linger long around here. And the narrow margin between Mr Gove and Mr Hunt has created doubts of its own.

Rumours are swirling that Mr Johnson's camp were engaged in skulduggery all day, that they would have pushed some of their own supporters to back Mr Hunt, to try to stop Mr Gove from coming second.

The message from on high in Mr Johnson's campaign is that the candidate himself was clear that absolutely must not happen, that he'd frown on any attempt to engineer the result.

Eyebrows have been raised, though. At least four of Sajid Javid's supporters declared online they would switch their support to Mr Johnson. But his actual tally only went up by three in the final ballot.

Were their arms twisted to "lend" their actual votes to Mr Hunt to keep Mr Gove off the ballot?

One member of the cabinet said there had been "more churn than a washing machine". It was a secret ballot, so we will never know exactly what happened. But corralling votes is the fundamental art of getting politics done.

But now this episode is over, we know which pair of politicians will vie to run the country.

The favourite, a public school and Oxford-educated former cabinet minister, who has survived more serious scrapes than Theresa May's had hot dinners.

The other, a millionaire public school-educated Oxford graduate, who's been in the cabinet for nearly a decade who tonight, has branded himself "the underdog".

And remember it's Tory members, not the rest of us, who'll make the final call.

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