Boris Johnson’s Tory leadership chances hinge on Brexiteers as Rishi Sunak races ahead

‘If Boris Johnson has 100 in the bag why is his campaign putting out pictures of him begging for votes?’

The two front-runners in the race to succeed Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson, held a private meeting on Saturday night, the first meeting between the former prime minister and his former chancellor since Johnson’s premiership unravelled in the summer.

Some MPs, wishing for unity in a divided party, hoped for a deal like the joint ticket agreed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the Granita Restaurant almost 30 years ago. It was not to be. At 8.30am on Sunday morning, Johnson held a Zoom meeting with his campaign team saying he was going it alone.

Even by that time the leadership race was going in only one direction, towards Sunak. Johnson’s much-reported return from holiday in the Caribbean on Saturday morning failed to inject the hoped-for momentum into his campaign. Sunak continued to race ahead with endorsements. By the time he officially declared his candidacy on Sunday, he had 140, well over the threshold of 100 names required.

In his statement he presented himself as a leader who would be sober, rational, sensible, reliable and professional. Not Boris Johnson, in other words.


Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, was the first to declare on Friday. Her big pitch was she could be a unity leader to bring the party’s warring factions together. Her public pledges have remained stuck in the mid-20s since Friday, giving her little prospect of making the ticket by Monday lunchtime.

So what of Johnson? In the 24 hours between Saturday and Sunday afternoon, his public pledges had trickled upwards by only 10, from 50 to 60. His team insisted he had the backing of 100 MPs but some could not go public.

That was vigorously challenged by Sunak supporters. “If Boris Johnson has 100 in the bag, why is his campaign putting out pictures of him begging for votes?” asked Sunak supporter Robert Syms in a tweet. “Just asking for a friend,” he added caustically.

“Clearly he is going to stand,” insisted Jacob Rees-Mogg on Sunday. “Those who do the numbers for the Boris Johnson campaign tell me that they have the numbers.”

His supporters have traded on his charisma – the fact he is the only candidate with an electoral mandate and the only one, they claim, capable of beating Labour in an election.

But it has not been going his way this time. In the 2019 election Tories won seats in constituencies that were Labour strongholds for generations. The MPs from those “Red Wall” seats were largely pro-Johnson but that support is peeling away, with some now backing Sunak.

The right-wing hard-Brexiteers the European Research Group (ERG) is scheduled to hold a meeting on Monday to decide how it will vote. This is now seen as crucial for Johnson’s chances.

“The only way Boris can make the ballot is if the ERG as a bloc put him there,” veteran Tory MP and Sunak supporter Crispin Blunt, told The Irish Times. “I think the thought of them voting as a bloc is for the birds,” he added.

There is evidence behind that view. Three prominent MPs associated with the right have rowed in strongly behind Sunak: international trade secretary Kemi Badenoch, former home secretary Suella Braverman, and Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker.

Badenoch’s endorsement of Sunak included an unspoken criticism of Johnson: “Rishi’s fiscal conservatism meant saying no to many cabinet colleagues, which, I suspect, is the reason a large number were opposed to his becoming prime minister. Right now, being able to say no is what we need.”

There are also difficulties facing Johnson over the lockdown parties held in Downing Street and that has become a factor. The House of Commons Committee of Privileges is investigating allegations he misled parliament.

Baker was one of many Sunak supporters who referenced this: “If there was a vote in the House of Commons it is guaranteed that a large number of Conservatives would refuse to lay down their integrity to save him. At that moment his premiership would collapse,” he predicted.

Many senior Tory figures on Sunday – including former Brexit secretary Lord David Frost – have been urging Johnson to stand down, saying the time is wrong, that he is the wrong leader at this very difficult time for the country. “The zeitgeist of the country is now a very different place from 2019,” observed Blunt.

Sunak has won the vote among MPs by a landslide. If Johnson reaches 100 and declares, the issue will be put to the party’s 150,000 members, who will vote online on Friday. There will be an “indicative vote” of MPs on Monday night to “guide” members in their choice.

Last time around they reversed the choice of the MPs, putting Liz Truss in ahead of Sunak. Does Johnson retain his popularity with the Tory rank and file? Could the membership wheel the scrum a second time even if Sunak romps home in the indicative vote? Britain will have a new prime minister either at lunchtime on Monday, or at 6pm on Friday. It is very likely to be Sunak but with Johnson in the mix nothing can ever be ruled out.