The campaign manager for Stormont minister Edwin Poots has claimed he has received the endorsement of the majority of politicians who decide the next leader of the DUP.
The vote to choose who succeeds Arlene Foster is carried out by a small electorate, comprising only of the party’s elected representatives in Stormont and Westminster.
On Saturday morning, MLA Paul Frew, who was announced as Mr Poots’s campaign manager on Friday, claimed the Agriculture Minister has received the majority backing of their MLAs and MPs.
Currently, Mr Poots remains unchallenged in his bid to become party leader.
However, it is thought likely that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will announce his candidature in the coming days.
Sources close to Sir Jeffrey dispute the claim from the Poots’ camp that he has received the majority endorsement of the party’s electoral college.
If the party’s Westminster leader does throw his hat in the ring it will be the first contested leadership race in the DUP’s 50-year history.
Mr Poots posted a video on social media on Saturday morning.
He said: “I’ve been speaking to my campaigner manager this morning and it was great to hear the news that he has confirmed that the majority of the electoral college is behind my bid for the DUP leadership.
“That’s something we are going to build upon over the course of the next week.”
Mr Frew also said on Saturday: “I am delighted to confirm Edwin has received endorsements from a majority of the electoral college including MLAs and MPs.
“As campaign manager I take nothing for granted and am very grateful for the support Edwin has received from colleagues.
“I look forward to taking forward the campaign for Edwin in the election for position of DUP leader and building upon this support with our agenda for reform and vision for Northern Ireland.”
Sources close to Sir Jeffrey said on Saturday it was “highly likely” that he will enter the race for the leadership.
The Lagan Valley MP is understood to be considering his next move over the weekend.
One source close to Sir Jeffrey told the PA news agency he had received a significant number of endorsements from MPs and MLAs.
“He has very strong support from the parliamentary team and has more firm commitments from MLAs than Mr Poots,” said the source.
Speculation linking MP Gavin Robinson with a leadership bid has cooled in recent days and it is thought unlikely he will now declare.
As it stands the electoral college would comprise 35 members. However, it is unclear whether DUP MLA Jim Wells, who lost the party whip a number of years ago, will get a vote. If he does, the number of politicians deciding the leadership will be 36.
Mr Poots posted a number of videos on social media on Friday, in which he spoke of the support he has received in his bid to become DUP leader.
Fellow MLAs Paul Givan, Christopher Stalford, Mervyn Storey and Jonathan Buckley all endorsed his candidacy, as did MP Paul Girvan.
Meanwhile, Mrs Foster thanked the hundreds of people who contacted her with “generous messages” after she announced she will step down as DUP leader later this month.
The outgoing leader posted on social media about the messages and gifts she has received in recent days.
It has been a turbulent week for the Stormont First Minister, who resigned a day after party colleagues moved against her by signing a letter of no confidence in her leadership.
Mrs Foster posted a picture of bunches of flowers she received following her announcement on Wednesday.
She tweeted: “Thank you to the hundreds who have been in touch with such generous messages and a special mention to those who sent these beautiful gifts.
“You don’t know how much it means to me and you are all so kind.”
On Friday, Mrs Foster said none of her DUP colleagues who moved to oust her had contacted her to explain why.
She described politics as “brutal”, but added that she is at peace with her decision to step down as DUP leader at the end of May and as First Minister a month later.
Mrs Foster said it had been a week of “big decisions” and that the time was right to move on and do something different.
Discontent at the DUP’s Brexit strategy was a major factor in the move against her, with party rank-and-file laying some of the blame for the emergence of an Irish Sea border at her door.
Traditionalists from the party’s religious fundamentalist wing also harboured concerns over positions Mrs Foster has taken on some social issues.