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The campaign team of Liz Truss say it was “never in doubt” that she would get to the run-off in the leadership vote. But many would have preferred to see her overtake Penny Mordaunt on Tuesday this week, and had had some expectations that it would happen.

The result in the end was closer than either Truss or Rishi Sunak would have liked – and it became the most unpredictable leadership race in a generation. Truss will have huge cause to celebrate, coming from third to now the bookies’ favourite to be next UK prime minister.

Since the race began, Truss has declined all broadcast interviews, apart from the debates, focusing on honing her message to MPs. She convinced a new generation of “red wall” MPs that she could be the standard bearer for Brexit, showing her commitment to the cause with evidence of trade deals signed and the Northern Ireland protocol bill. For more experienced MPs it was her credibility of years in cabinet, at the Treasury and the Foreign Office, with the economy and Ukraine at the forefront of MPs’ minds.

Her team have been laser-focused on finding out what MPs care most about and on briefing her on their concerns. Many of those she already knows; Truss has always prioritised outreach to her parliamentary colleagues, holding surgeries in the tea rooms and hosting “fizz with Liz” (a term that has become legendary in SW1 but which her allies say she has never used).

Allies of Truss believe some of Mordaunt’s early support quietly came over to them in the past few days, speculating that their rival’s leadership campaign had sewn up names many months ago who then started to have doubts when the race began.

There has been endless speculation about the 4D chess being played by candidates – wild rumours of Sunak lending votes to knock out Mordaunt, Michael Gove working to split the right by backing Kemi Badenoch, centrist MPs mobilising to “stop Liz”. If these operations were taking place – and the churn in the vote suggests some probably were – then they almost certainly ended up cancelling each other out.

The unpredictability of the race – and the duplicity of the electorate – made the final hours of the last round of MPs’ voting a stressful time for Truss in particular. But she did have the advantage of Tuesday night’s result, which knocked out Badenoch. Truss’s team were fishing for votes in an easier pool, with her having positioned herself as the flagbearer of the right of the party.

Badenoch did not back anyone, telling her supporters in a WhatsApp message: “I know you will follow your heart and do what is best for us all, the party and the country.” It is clear now that a significant number decided to back the foreign secretary.

It casts doubt on the most popular Westminster rumour of the last week, that Badenoch’s campaign was an astroturf construction masterminded by Gove, which would swing behind Sunak and give him credibility on the right in time for the members’ vote.

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Sunak has five former chief whips backing his campaign who know how to do the numbers. But, broadly, MPs are able to make up their own minds to vote tactically without much organisation, though they may not succeed.

One supporter of another defeated candidate had said on Tuesday they would turn to backing Mordaunt’s campaign. Asked why they were rejecting Sunak, the person replied: “I haven’t, we just need to stop Liz.” That move turned out to have come too late.

Liz Truss leaves it late to leapfrog Tory rivals into poll position

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