Tory hopes of a unity leadership candidate to bring the party together are fading as the race to replace Liz Truss shaped up as a no-holds-barred fight between bitter rivals Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson.
Penny Mordaunt, third-placed in the summer’s leadership contest, became the first to publicly declare her candidacy, promising a “fresh start”.
But the bulk of MP endorsements were going to Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak. Campaign sources said on Thursday night the former chancellor had surpassed the 100-nomination threshold needed to get onto the ballot paper.
And there was little sign of any love lost between the two camps.
As Mr Johnson mulled an extraordinary comeback attempt after being forced from office by a revolt in his own party’s ranks, his backers insisted that his 2019 general election victory makes him the only leader with a mandate from voters.
The former PM was understood to be in close touch with potential supporters as he returned from a Caribbean holiday in time for Monday’s nomination deadline, telling allies: “I’m up for it.”
But his rivals warned he would once more mire the Tories in scandal and disarray because of the ongoing investigation into alleged lies to parliament over Partygate.
Business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg riled supporters of Mr Sunack with an endorsement using the hashtag #BorisorBust.
Former minister Tim Loughton retorted: “How on Earth can that slogan be remotely helpful?… You really should think this through properly if you have any interest in party unity.”
Backers of the former chancellor were privately dismissive of Mr Johnson’s supposed offer of a return to the Treasury for Mr Sunak as part of a “dream team” ticket, suggesting that any deal would be more likely with Ms Mordaunt.
One supporter told The Independent: “If Boris wanted to take a job in Rishi’s cabinet, that might be acceptable. But he’d only have to resign after a couple of months when the Partygate report comes out.”
Another said it was “amazing” that some MPs think Mr Johnson can win them the next election.
“Will he even make it that far?” said the MP. “If the Privileges Committee is as damning for him as it sounds, he is possibly gone by Christmas.
“The fact he is standing at all while under investigation is shameful. It’s hardly the stability and unity everyone is calling for.”
The scale of the challenge left for the new leader by Ms Truss was laid bare in a PeoplePolling survey for GB News which put the Tories on just 14 per cent – their lowest tally in living memory – against 53 per cent for Keir Starmer’s Labour.
And a separate Opinium poll suggested that Mr Johnson was the candidate least likely to win voters back, with both Mr Sunak and Ms Mordaunt beating him in head-to-head face-offs for best leader – by margins of 44-31 and 36-33 per cent respectively. Mr Sunak was preferred over Ms Mordaunt by 45-23 per cent.
A YouGov poll found that more than half of Britons (52 per cent) would be unhappy to see Mr Johnson return to 10 Downing Street, compared to just 27 per cent who would be pleased by the prospect. Even among Conservative voters from the 2019 general election, little more than half (56 per cent) would be happy to see him back in power less than two months after handing over to Ms Truss.
Supporters of Mr Sunak are concerned that even if he beats Mr Johnson in a ballot of MPs on Monday, Tory members could repeat the experience of the summer in an online poll by backing the more right-wing candidate over the one favoured by the parliamentary party and by voters at large.
Close ally John Glen warned that the choice should not go to the contender with the most “engaging or amusing personality” but to the one who can “restore confidence in the Conservative Party’s reputation for economic competence while putting first the interests of the most vulnerable”.
“Boris Johnson was removed for a reason,” said the former Treasury minister. “Those issues have not changed and we must look forward and not back.”
Another former minister, Robin Walker, told The Independent that Mr Sunak had been “proved right” in his warnings of the economic risks of a Truss premiership and was the candidate able to attract floating voters
A comeback by Mr Johnson would be “very divisive for the party”, he said, adding: “I don’t think the issues of trust that caused him to resign have gone away.”
While Mr Sunak’s camp claims he has hit more than 100 supporters, an unofficial tally of MP nominations by the Guido Fawkes website put Mr Johnson on 69 and Ms Mordaunt on 25.
The leader of the Commons announced her candidacy in a tweet with the hashtag #PM4PM, declaring: “I’ve been encouraged by support from colleagues who want a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest. I’m running to be the leader of the Conservative Party and your prime minister – to unite our country, deliver our pledges and win the next general election.”
She won the endorsement of former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, who said she had “the experience, the compassion and the determination to lead our country to a bright future”.
Ms Mordaunt is understood to have held talks with Jeremy Hunt and assured him he can stay on as chancellor if she becomes prime minister.
Mr Sunak was buoyed by the nomination of his predecessor as chancellor, Sajid Javid – who took a swipe at Mr Johnson by saying the Tories need to “move on from the mistakes of the past” – as well as former environment secretary George Eustice.
But Mr Johnson won the backing of influential Teesside mayor Ben Houchen – previously a vocal advocate of Mr Sunack– who issued a joint statement with the formerly Truss-backing levelling up secretary Simon Clarke applauding his comeback.
And defence secretary Ben Wallace said he was “leaning” towards the former PM as he ruled himself out of the contest with a dig at the ex-chancellor for his resistance to hikes in military spending: “You cannot have economic security at home without national security.”
Stoke MP Jonathan Gullis declared his backing for Mr Johnson, despite having resigned from his government only three months ago saying he could not “in good conscience” serve a PM who would not take responsibility for his mistakes.
Close Johnson ally Nigel Adams – who served as a minister in his administration – said that Labour had been “incredibly cocky” in recent weeks as polls swung in their direction and Ms Truss was forced from office.
But he said Sir Keir’s party was “terrified of Boris because he is a winner and they know it”. And he warned that victory for any other candidate would spark “deafening” demands for a general election because only Johnson had a mandate from voters.
Sir Keir warned against a “revolving door of chaos” unless a general election is called.
“The risk is not a general election,” said the Labour leader. “The risk is continuing with this chaos.”
Brushing off suggestions that Mr Sunak is his most-feared opponent, he said: “We’ve got to get away from this idea of a revolving door of chaos, and that we just get the next experiment at the top of the Tory party.
“What matters is what happens to this country. And there’s the contrast: more of this chaos or stability under a Labour government.”
Liberal Democrats tabled a motion to ban MPs found to have broken the law in office from becoming PM, branding Johnson – who was fined by police for breaching Covid regulations at a No 10 party – “Britain’s Berlusconi”.