It was once described as the widest open race in a generation. With votes falling on the doorsteps of conservative members, the race is considered almost over.
The most telling sign of this is when ambitious ministers looking to keep their jobs come out with their messages of support for Liz Truss after waiting to be sure they will pick the winning horse.
The race is also starting to follow a more predictable script. Like Boris Johnson, Truss launched her campaign late and limited early media appearances and thus opportunities for gaffes. Like Johnson, her thick-skinned campaign was a solid boosterism.
Rishi Sunak’s started out as pragmatism and seriousness — like Jeremy Hunt — but he’s since been forced to throw out more and more red meat to catch up with his rival, similar to how Hunt ended his final weeks of campaigning.
But Sunak’s campaign is not giving up and MPs are quietly saying the race could be closer than expected. It is true that the story of Truss’ certain victory deserves some further investigation. Her lead was impressive in party members’ YouGov polls – about 24 points – but the last poll was on July 21.
It was found that 31% of the members intend to vote for Rishi Sunak while 49% intend to vote for Liz Truss. Another 15% don’t know right now.
But its conservative membership is hard to gauge, although YouGov has an excellent track record. Polls for the Johnson-Hunt result in 2019 correctly predicted the result, but gave Johnson a much higher margin of victory than he got.
MPs from both the Truss and Sunak camps conduct their own poll among the association’s members. Most think Truss is on track to win, but will emphasize that the mood is very soft. Many MPs described their ad hoc local poll of MPs as neck and neck with a significant number undecided.
One said they thought the ballots would not be returned as quickly as in previous years, despite the conventional wisdom that members return their ballots within days, which would have given Sunak just days to turn his fortunes around.
Another MP said their senior members generally break for Sunak and younger members for Truss, suggesting older members were less likely to participate in online polls. The other indication that the race may be tighter than expected is a poll of conservative candidates putting just a dot between the pair.
A former minister said they had conducted an informal poll of their members, finding almost an even split, while a third was undecided. Even then, the electorate is unpredictable – members are not allowed to say they support a rival candidate if they know their MP supports another.
There is one thing hugely in favor of Truss regardless of the polls. She has the momentum. Often polls showing that a candidate is the frontrunner have their own way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
Truss now has a torrent of support from ministers like Nadhim Zahawi and Brandon Lewis, who think they can see which direction the wind is blowing. Penny Mordaunt, who finished third in the leadership race, expressed support for the Foreign Secretary ahead of Monday’s storming in Exeter.
Sunak was the candidate who ever had that momentum, bringing Grant Shapps, Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt on board as big names who thought they were picking the winning horse. That could be a sign to anyone in this race that the wind can still change very quickly.