Boris Johnson has one foot over the threshold of Downing Street. This contest was already his to lose. What is now clear is that he will have to defeat himself. No one looks close to catching him. And given his undisputed popularity with Conservative party members, it would be a brave person who bet against Mr Johnson becoming the next prime minister.
The former foreign secretary and leadership frontrunner did everything he needed to in today’s first ballot of Tory MPs, securing nearly three times as many votes as his closest rival Jeremy Hunt, the current foreign secretary. Mr Johnson already has enough supporters to guarantee a place in the final two, whose names will go forward to a vote of the party membership. He is likely to pull in more support as his status is confirmed and hardline Brexiters like Esther McVey, who has been eliminated, and, eventually, Dominic Raab, drop out. Mr Johnson’s safety-first strategy of lying low and offering as few hostages-to-fortune as possible is paying off.
The battle is still very much on for the second slot on the final ballot paper. While Mr Johnson broke free of the pack Mr Hunt and Michael Gove, the environment secretary, are within six votes of each other in second and third place. Mr Hunt will be disappointed. His pitch to be the establishment, realist candidate helped him sweep up support from most of the big cabinet names, even across the party divides, from Leavers and Remainers. But the result shows he has not established himself as the undisputed alternative to Mr Johnson. Mr Hunt had hoped that Mr Gove’s campaign stalled after admissions about taking cocaine in his pre-parliamentary life. But Mr Gove held on to his support and is still in the fight.
Tory moderates now face a real dilemma. Do they pile in behind Mr Hunt despite fears he offers little more than Theresa May by way of solutions to the Brexit puzzle? Mr Gove, as one of the figureheads of the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, has more credibility with Brexiters and can, therefore, attempt to make the run-off against Mr Johnson a vote on competence and ability to deliver. Or do they try to boost Rory Stewart whose quirky, energetic campaign has won him many admirers?
Mr Raab will be hoping to stay competitive by hoovering up the 20 votes that went to Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom, and some of those that went to Mark Harper — the only three contenders so far out of the race for failing to garner enough votes in the first ballot. Hardline Brexiters will want two candidates ready to countenance no-deal in the final two but it looks unlikely Mr Raab can gather the extra momentum. The combined votes of the other candidates should be enough to stop him making it to the final fight against Mr Johnson.
Ordinarily, one would expect more of the back markers in the context, those in the low twenties or below, to drop out and consolidate around the second and third place contenders. However, many will be tempted to hang on for the first TV debate, on Channel 4 on Sunday, in which they might see other like-minded candidates stumble.
Sajid Javid, the home secretary and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, are probably too far behind to make it all the way, but want the chance to take aim at Mr Johnson in front of the viewing public. Likewise, Mr Stewart, the international development secretary, currently in last place among those still in contention but who senses he has some momentum among the party members. He will want to make an impression in the debate.
The TV debate is now a no-win event for Mr Johnson. If he refuses to participate he looks scared, conjuring up images of Theresa May refusing to take part in the 2017 general election debates — the broadcasters have threatened an empty lectern. If he turns up he will be everyone’s target. But if he handles these attacks well, he can gain from the spectacle, portraying his rivals as pygmies trying to take down the one giant. Mr Johnson remains an accomplished debater and may be content to let his rivals squabble among themselves as each seeks to prove they are the best placed to challenge him in the last round.
It will now take a fairly huge catastrophe to pull the frontrunner down. Gary Lineker used to joke that football was a simple game in which “twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win”. At the moment the race to be the next prime minister looks just as preordained.