Who will be the next prime minister and what are the bookies’ odds?

The Tory leadership contest is in its final phase. Matthew Partridge reports on the contest and looks at who the bookies’ favourite is.

After two “excruciating” televised debates and five ballots of Conservative MPs, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss emerged on Wednesday as the two final candidates to become the next leader of the Conservative Party.

The winner will become “the third prime minister anointed in the past six years without being voted into office by the general electorate”, says Hannah Jane Parkinson in The Guardian. The final say once again “has been given to the circa-160,000 members of the Conservative party”, with the result due on 5 September.

Trusting the membership

The fact that the Conservatives are placing their fate in the hands of the membership shows they have learned little from what happened with outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson, says Daniel Finklestein in the Times. Despite the fact that Johnson’s weaknesses were “well known” and his “failings as a minister understood”, MPs bowed to pressure from Conservative party members and choose him as one of the two to go forward to the final ballot.

The fact that someone so “obviously unsuited to the premiership” was selected “should prompt a rethink” – and not just for the Tories. The previous practice of MPs of both the two principal parties choosing their leader “would have prevented the twin fiascos” of Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.

That said, Conservative party members are more “canny” than their MPs might think, says the Economist. Surveys suggest that the views of the Conservative rank and file are “roughly in line with bog-standard centre-right opinion”, and if anything slightly more centrist on economics than the typical Conservative MP. And MPs “do not have a monopoly on wisdom”, as shown by the subsequent failure of Theresa May, the overwhelming choice of MPs in 2016. Still, the process of creating a “de facto presidency” by having leaders directly elected by a party’s membership “is a recipe for constitutional stress”, and sits uneasily with the idea of parliamentary sovereignty.

A long process

A further anomaly is that the system “requires a lower threshold to win the leadership than to retain it”, says Daniel Hannan on Conservative Home. “You can become party leader with the support of a third of your MPs”, but require half to survive a subsequent vote of no confidence. Note, too, that the sheer length of the process encourages rival camps to “smear” each other with personal attacks thus “ensuring that the eventual winner makes enemies along the way”. It also means that “for the rest of this month, and all of next, Britain’s administration is paralysed” with “no new decisions made or announced”.

Still, having a genuine contest for Conservative leader that takes place over several weeks comes with several benefits, says Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph. While some may have found the debates so far “ghastly”, they have least exposed some of the two remaining candidates’ weaknesses, while forcing them to “answer back” to their critics. This scrutiny has made them “better politicians”.

What are the odds on who will become the next prime minister?

Rishi Sunak may have got support from 137 MPs, compared with 113 for Liz Truss, but Truss is favourite to emerge as the next prime minister. With £2.98m matched on Betfair on the market for the next PM (along with a further £2.4m on the next Conservative leader), punters have Truss at 1.68 (59.5%). However, they still think the contest might not be a walkover, as Sunak is only out at 2.46, which means they still give him a 40.7% chance of winning.

My guess is that the contest is going to be a bit closer than the markets suggest. It’s true that Truss has a clear lead in the latest YouGov poll of members, with 54% of the vote compared with Sunak’s 39%, but this isn’t completely insurmountable, especially given that there will be now six weeks of campaigning and debates before the results are in.

You can expect the MPs who voted for Sunak, as well as most of those who voted for Penny Mordaunt – narrowly beaten by Truss, with 105 votes – to campaign on his behalf in the media. This should help sway some votes.

Sunak’s team will be hammering home the message that polls have consistently shown that the Conservatives will do much worse under Truss than Sunak.

While such arguments don’t always work, the fact that the Conservatives are in power, rather than opposition, might focus minds. As a result, while Truss just might edge it, I think the result is uncertain enough to make it worth betting on Sunak at 2.46 to be the next PM with Betfair.

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