Boris Johnson’s would-be successors to lead the Conservative Party and the country are quietly getting their leadership campaigns under way, after the prime minister announced his resignation on Thursday.
No clear favourite has emerged in the first few frenzied hours after the prime minister’s unusual resignation speech outside No 10, during which he mourned the “eccentric” Tory revolt which finally forced him to quit.
Deputy PM Dominic Raab and ex-cabinet minister Michael Gove, described by a No 10 source as “a snake” after he turned on Mr Johnson, have ruled themselves out, The Independent understands.
But around a dozen MPs are believed to be preparing campaigns or canvassing support. The crowded contest threatens to become akin to the “wacky races”, said backbencher Steve Brine.
Former chancellor Rishi Sunak and ex-health secretary Sajid Javid effectively launched their bids for the top job by quitting on Tuesday evening. However, both contenders both kept their heads down as the PM finally accepted the game was up on Thursday.
Ben Wallace also stayed quiet, defending his decision to remain defence secretary as “an obligation to keep this country safe”. He is viewed as a favourite among members, topping this week’s online Conservative Home survey of the party grassroots.
Trade minister Penny Mordaunt – believed to have put her campaign team in place – is also being viewed as a serious contender. The ardent Leave campaigner came second only to Mr Wallace in this week’s grassroots survey.
Tom Tugendhat received a major boost over Jeremy Hunt in his bid to win the support of Tory moderates when Damian Green, leader of the One Nation caucus, backed him to be the next PM.
Mr Green told Sky News: “Having a fresh start with someone who is not in the cabinet and is determined to restore the highest standards will be exactly what the country wants … You can take it that Tom is going to run.”
A Remainer at the Brexit referendum in 2016, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee became the first to announce his intention to stand for leader by making his declaration back in January.
Mr Hunt, the former health secretary understood to be keen on a second leadership bid, kept quiet on Thursday – though he did post a selfie on Instagram of himself on the phone looking serious.
Nadhim Zahawi is also believed to be considering a leadership bid, despite a whirlwind 48 hours which saw him named chancellor on Tuesday before he headed back into Downing Street the following evening to advise Mr Johnson that his time was up.
Mr Zahawi has been “secretly” working with close allies of Tory election strategist Sir Lynton Crosby on a possible leadership campaign for months, according to The Times.
It is not yet clear whether home secretary Priti Patel or transport secretary Grant Shapps could throw their hats in the ring. The Johnson loyalists were also part of a delegation of ministers who headed into No 10 on Wednesday night to tell Mr Johnson his time was over.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss, a Remainer in 2016 who has boosted her credentials with Brexiteers with her hardline stance on the protocol, cut short her trip to Indonesia on Thursday and called for “calmness and unity” in the weeks ahead.
Tory ally Alec Shelbrooke said he would be backing Ms Truss to be leader. “When I look at what we need to do to help deliver the manifesto, get those Brexit benefits … Liz Truss is going to be the best person to deliver that,” said the Remain campaigner.
Steve Baker, the self-declared Brexit “hardman” said was considering throwing his hat in the ring. Asked by TalkTV who would be in his first cabinet, the ex-chair of the European Research Group (ERG) named Mr Wallace and Mr Sunak – saying the ex-chancellor had “unfulfilled potential”.
Jake Berry, leader of the Northern Research Group (NRG), is also thought to be considering a leadership bid. Although he has been in parliament since 2019, he remains an influential figure among many of the “red wall” MPs who won seats in the north and Midlands in 2019.
There has been speculation the 2019 intake of younger MPs could be agreed as a “new generation” candidate. But one MP in the group told The Independent that there was no current plan for someone to step forward.
The attorney general Suella Braverman told ITV’s Peston on Wednesday that she would put her name into the ring. A Braverman for PM Twitter account sprung up on Thursday – with Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne becoming the first to support for her bid.
Despite the apparent popularity of Mr Wallace and Ms Mordaunt in grassroots surveys, former No 10 pollster James Johnson shared more extensive polling of the general public which showed Mr Sunak was the most popular choice to be PM.
Some 14 per cent of voters opted for the former chancellor as their top choice in the JL Partners poll, ahead of the Mr Javid and Mr Hunt (both on 7 per cent) and Ms Truss and Mr Wallace (both on 4 per cent).
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is not standing, trashed the legacy of Mr Sunak in an interview with Channel 4 – claiming he was “not a successful chancellor” and a “high tax chancellor”.
Mr Wallace beats all other contenders in the most recent YouGov poll of Tory members, who will ultimately decide who becomes PM when two final two candidates are presented to them in late July or early August.
The 1922 executive is under pressure to have the initial field of candidates down to two by 21 July, when parliament breaks for summer.
A hustings process for members would be expected to last around a month before a new leader is elected – and new PM in place – by the start of September.