Matt Hancock backs Boris Johnson in Tory leadership race

Peter Walker Political correspondent
Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

Matt Hancock, who dropped out of the Conservative leadership race at the end of last week, has endorsed Boris Johnson, despite having campaigned on a modernising ticket and said he would not push for a no-deal Brexit.

In an article for the Times announcing the decision, the health secretary said it was clear Johnson was likely to win, and it was time to “unite behind him” as soon as possible.

However, Hancock said Johnson, the former foreign secretary, had given assurances he would govern as a consensual, one-nation Conservative, and would support the needs of business. On both issues, Hancock said, he would “hold him to that”.

In the first round of voting among Tory MPs on Thursday, Hancock finished sixth out of 10 candidates with 20 supporters, above the 13 needed to progress to the next round but with little seeming chance of progressing much further.

Michael Gove

The environment secretary’s campaign plan was knocked off course by revelations about drug-taking.

He has sought to regain his place as the leading ‘Stop Boris’ with a series of policy pledges, from a new social insurance to pay for social care, to changing human rights law to prevent service personnel being pursued over historical crimes. He has better Brexiter credentials than Hunt, is liked by the moderate wing of the party, and is a better orator than almost any other candidate.

He has played up his senior role in the Vote Leave campaign, saying he had ‘led from the front’ because he believed it was ‘the right thing to do, at a critical moment in our history’.

On Brexit he has publicly discussed the idea of extending the Brexit deadline slightly beyond 31 October, if needed to finalise a deal. Has not completely ruled out a no-deal Brexit.

He received 37 votes in the first round, coming third.

Jeremy Hunt

The foreign secretary has made the case that he is the most serious and experienced would-be leader, in an apparent rebuke to his main rival, Boris Johnson. 

On Brexit he believes a new deal is possible by 31 October, and would send a new, cross-party negotiating team to Brussels. Would countenance leaving EU without a deal, but has warned that could lead to a confidence vote and potentially an election.

Hunt’s problem is he is seen as the continuity candidate, the safe pair of hands, when colleagues are starting to see the attraction of a new style. 

He received 43 votes in the first round, placing him second.

Sajid Javid

Javid struggled to define himself in the first days of the campaign, not a fresh face, not a safe pair of hands, or a true Brexit believer. But his campaign picked up, with the endorsement of popular Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, a polished leadership video telling the moving story of his background, and a lively launch speech. It was still only enough to place him fifth, though.

On Brexit, Javid says he wants to leave with a deal, but has talked down the idea of another extension and would be prepared to opt for no deal.

He is expected to make a new push to define himself as the change candidate who can talk to Tory voters in new places – though he may also be tempted to drop out to tuck in behind one of the frontrunners. It is hard to see how he could make it into the final two from this position.

He received 23 votes in the first round.

Boris Johnson

The former foreign secretary already has enough support to progress through to the members’ ballot. All Johnson needs to do is sit tight, keep his MPs sweet and try not to ruin it for himself. He has kept a low profile in the media and stayed in the tearooms and in his office, methodically talking round colleagues. His team know that one negative news cycle because of an off-guard comment could see his star plummet – and Johnson is more prone to those than most.

On Brexit he has promised the UK will leave the EU on 31 October, come what may, even without a deal if a new agreement cannot be reached in time.

Johnson won the first round with 114 votes.

Dominic Raab

The former Brexit secretary has had a rocky start to his campaign after telling broadcasters he was not a feminist and missing out on a slew of endorsements from the Brexiter right of the party, which instead went to Boris Johnson

On Brexit Raab has said he would actively seek a no-deal departure, and has repeatedly refused to rule out proroguing parliament to make sure MPs could not block this. ‘We’ve been humiliated as a country in these talks with the EU,’ he said. ‘We’re divided at home, and demeaned abroad.’

His limited chance of success really now depends on whether Johnson stumbles and a more moderate candidate gains momentum, in which case Raab could be the beneficiary.

Raab got 27 votes in the first round.

Rory Stewart

Stewart said he was ‘over the moon’ to scrape into the next round of voting with 19 votes, one-sixth of Johnson’s tally, and insisted afterwards he could still make the final two. He still has a mountain to climb to get into the next round, where he will need to get another 14 endorsements – and avoid coming last – or he will be automatically eliminated.

The safe money would say it is likely that he will not make it through the next round, yet it is just about possible that his mounting popularity with the public could convince colleagues to take a gamble on him if they hope to find an outsider with a chance of beating Johnson.

On Brexit he is by far the softest of the candidates – he so vehemently rules out no deal that he has discussed holding an impromptu parliament elsewhere in Westminster if a new PM opted to prorogue the Commons.

Stewart got 19 votes in the first round.

Hancock announced he was pulling out of the race on Friday morning. His endorsement for Johnson does not mean his former supporters will follow suit. On Monday, one of these, the Scottish Conservative MP Paul Masterton, said he would instead back the other self-styled moderniser in the race, Rory Stewart.

Stewart was among five of the six remaining candidates who took part in a Channel 4 televised debate on Sunday night, which Johnson chose to not attend.

Michael Gove, who had been hoping to receive Hancock’s endorsement, said it was “disappointing, naturally”, for it to go to Johnson, but insisted he remained a serious contender.

“At the moment, yes of course it is the case that Boris is the frontrunner,” the environment secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “But we need to make sure that he is tested, and we have two candidates who go forward, if Boris is one of them, who we know are being capable of being prime minister from day one.”

Gove added: “I would be ready to take control of the ship of state and steer it safely through the difficult waters ahead.”

Asked about criticisms of Johnson’s character and honesty, Gove was circumspect: “There have been various attempts to mount personal attacks against him and against some of the other candidates. I think that is wrong. In the past I’ve had my criticisms and differences with Boris, but I believe that he is someone who is capable of being prime minister.”

In his Times article, Hancock said he had spoken to all the candidates, and had “reflected on what is needed in the national interest and how the approaches of the candidates fit with my values”.

He wrote: “Having considered all the options, I’m backing Boris Johnson as the best candidate to unite the Conservative party, so we can deliver Brexit and then unite the country behind an open, ambitious, forward-looking agenda, delivered with the energy that gets stuff done.”

Johnson had run “a disciplined campaign and is almost certainly going to be our next prime minister”, Hancock argued, saying: “We need to unite behind him with a strong team that can bring the party together and then bring the country together.” This unity, he said, needed to start “sooner rather than later”.

Johnson had promised in both public and private, Hancock added, to be a one-nation prime minister “and bring the country together around an optimistic vision for the future”. He said: “I will hold him to that.”

Referring to their expletive-based jostling on business, Hancock said: “Boris and I have both used language our mothers might disapprove of in this debate. But I have been reassured, again emphatically, that a Boris administration will be pro-business, pro-enterprise, supportive of the aspirational and the international. That matters to me, and I’ll hold him to that too.”