Boris Johnson’s hopes of a return to Downing Street were today dealt a severe blow as influential Eurosceptic Steve Baker came out for rival Rishi Sunak, warning that victory for the former PM would be “a guaranteed disaster”.
The Northern Ireland minister told Sky News that a second Johnson premiership would “collapse” within months as Tory MPs would not be willing to vote to save him from an inquiry into alleged Partygate lies.
Mr Baker said it would be for the best if Mr Johnson did “something big and statesmanlike” and delay any future bid for the Conservative leadership until after the Commons Privileges Committee inquiry is concluded.
Mr Johnson’s hopes of securing the 100 MPs’ nominations needed to get onto the ballot paper in the race to succeed Liz Truss may rest on members of the eurosceptic European Research Group, who meet on Monday to discuss their preferences.
Former ERG chair Mr Baker’s support for Sunak is likely to be influential on members’ decision, with Leave-backing Sunak showing that he is able to command support from the right of the party.
Mr Baker told Sky’s Sophy Ridge that a Johnson government would “implode” in short order as Tory MPs are asked to vote in the Commons on the report into whether he misled parliament over lockdown-breaching parties in 10 Downing Street.
“There will be a large number of Conservatives who will refuse to – as they see it – lay down their integrity to save him, and at that point his premiership will collapse,” said Mr Baker.
“Sixty-two MPs resigned from his government over the Pincher affair, which was an issue of conduct and character. Those same MPs are not now going to go like lambs through the division lobby.
“His premiership will collapse, it’s a guaranteed nailed-on failure. We cannot allow it.”
With Conservatives looking at defeat at the next election, many MPs will be thinking about their future prospects after leaving parliament and will not want to see their reputations trashed by voting to save Johnson, said Mr Baker.
Urging Mr Johnson to pull out of the contest, Mr Baker said: “It would be best if Boris did something big and statesmanlike.
“If he wants to come back as prime minister, he would need to do it after this privilege decision issue is settled.
“I think he would make an amazing chairman of the party. Everybody know he’s got huge character and charisma, he lights up any room he’s in.
“As chairman he can lead the campaign … but what we can’t do is have a prime minister in circumstances where he is bound to implode, taking down the whole government with him.”