Former chancellor Rishi Sunak has captured the early momentum in advance of Boris Johnson in the race to succeed Liz Truss as British prime minister.
The prospect of Mr Johnson’s return to office less than two months after he left Downing Street amid criticism of his personal conduct has deeply divided a Conservative party already reeling from the catastrophic impact of Ms Truss’s six weeks in power.
Her successor as party leader and prime minister is due to be installed by next Friday at the latest.
House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt became the first MP to declare her candidacy on Friday, presenting herself as a unity candidate.
Threshold of 100
Mr Sunak had already received 84 public endorsements from MPs by Friday evening, just 16 short of the threshold of 100 required to become a candidate in the contest for the Tory party leadership.
Some 46 MPs have publicly backed Mr Johnson, who announced his resignation in July after a series of public controversies including staff parties held at 10 Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdowns. A House of Commons committee is investigating if Mr Johnson, who left office on September 6th, misled parliament.
Neither Mr Sunak nor Mr Johnson had yet declared their candidacy by Friday night or shown their hand. Both are expected to do so before the close of nominations on Monday. Mr Johnson is travelling back to the UK from a family holiday in the Caribbean.
In what is beginning to look like a three-horse race, Ms Mordaunt declared her candidacy on Twitter. She had 21 public endorsements by Friday night and confirmed she would retain Jeremy Hunt as chancellor if successful.
“I’ve been encouraged by support from colleagues who want a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest,” she said.
Her Westminster backers emphasised her credentials as a unity candidate. Conservative MP Bob Seely, from the Isle of Wight, said she would offer something other than the “binary choice” between Mr Sunak and Mr Johnson.
Two other senior figures, former home secretary Suella Braverman and international trade secretary Kemi Badenoch could enter the race this weekend. They both unsuccessfully contested the leadership earlier this year, as did Mr Sunak and Ms Mordaunt.
Former health secretary Sajid Javid strongly backed Mr Sunak, saying the UK desperately needed “economic stability, hard-headed decision-making and strong leadership”. Mr Sunak remains the favourite among putative contestants.
Four ministers have backed Mr Johnson, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Alok Sharma and defence secretary Ben Wallace, who said it was an important factor that the former prime minister was the only candidate who had an electoral mandate.
There are 357 Conservative MPs, which would allow a maximum of three candidates. It is more likely, however, that two candidates will reach the threshold of 100 nominations. If two candidates remain on Monday evening, the party’s membership will then vote online on Friday to choose its new leader. The result will be announced on Friday evening by the chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, Graham Brady.
Labour leader Keir Starmer repeated his call on Friday for an immediate general election, saying people were “paying the price for the chaos at the top of the Tory party”.