The show is over, the big top is emptying, and the would-be lion tamer is back off to his caravan to lick his wounds.
Rory Stewart has had an incredible leadership run. He only joined the cabinet a month ago (a knock-on beneficiary of Gavin Williamson’s implosion) but in a few short weeks Stewart has made himself one to watch. Via a canny, pleasingly eccentric social media game and an openness to the public, and to debate, that felt refreshing to many, the International Development Secretary seizes the moment. He deployed his outsider status as a strength. He took on his opponents directly. He cast himself as Cassandra, telling the truths that no-one else would say and that Tory MPs didn’t want to hear. It worked, up to a point. Pundits doomed Stewart’s campaign to death upon arrival. Instead he survived and thrived.
Still, though, surprisingly strong as his campaign proved to be it was not enough to get him beyond last night’s knock- out vote. He won’t be our next Prime Minister or have the opportunity to follow Boris Johnson around the country explaining to Tory members why the former Foreign Secretary is not the messiah but a very naughty boy.
Where does that leave the race? Well, Tory MPs who are not keen on Boris (or susceptible to his perceived inevitability) have to ask themselves which of the remaining candidates best rebukes Boris for his Borisness. Hunt’s argument is that he is serious, reliable and diplomatic – attributes that Mr. Johnson is not famous for. Gove says that he is energetic, imaginative and bold, characteristics of Johnson’s, yes, but ones that the DEFRA Secretary argues are more productively embodied in him. And Sajid Javid – for all his policy disagreements with Boris, of which surely there are many – points to himself. To his background, his meritocratic rise, his story and his (if we are being frank) ethnicity as crucial differentiators. If one were to select a candidate primarily on who – by virtue of standing on a stage next to him – would most show up Boris, surely Sajid would be your man. We will find out tonight which of the final three Tory MPs have decided to let take on Boris – and which of their cases will be made to the membership.
Meanwhile – though – the race has narrowed not just in terms of candidates but in terms of its parameters. Raab promised to lock MPs out of Parliament to deliver No Deal. Rory argued that there was only one deal on the table, that which May had negotiated. Both are cut. Every remaining candidate claims that they can renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, that No Deal is on the table but that they will not cancel Parliament in aid of ‘democracy’. Critics will call this unicornism but this is all that is left, on Brexit policy, in the race to succeed Theresa May. And so, one is obliged to take it seriously, or at least to try.
So, what are the prospects of a renegotiated Withdrawal Arrangement, secured from Brussels, that satisfies Mark Francois, Greg Clark, the DUP and Sam Gyimah? Where you choose to put your money is up to you, but this is not a bet that the risk-averse would take up.
In British politics, as all other options narrow so an election becomes more likely. Raab and Rory represented alternatives. Both are gone. Perhaps Boris, Michael, Jeremy or Sajid will return triumphant from a jolly weekend in Belgium with a red, white and blue Brexit agreement. That is what each of them is promising, in their own way. But if they don’t then this brief catharsis will have been for naught. In this circus, the old ringmaster’s refrain will ring on. “Nothing has changed”.