Race for prime minister heats up as Tories rush to take sides

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A general view of the outside of 10 Downing Street in London (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)
A general view of the outside of 10 Downing Street in London (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)

Tories are rushing to take sides in the race to become the new prime minister after Rishi Sunak declared he has set his sights on the top job.

Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch is said to be the latest to throw her hat into the ring, with a plan for a smaller state and a government “focused on the essentials”.

Meanwhile former minister Steve Baker has backed Attorney General Suella Braverman’s campaign – despite previously saying he was seriously considering putting himself forward for the top job.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is also widely expected to run for leader.

Tory MPs Chloe Smith and Julian Knight both expressed their support for the senior Cabinet minister on Friday, although she is yet to launch a bid.

Ms Smith said Ms Truss is “the right person to take our country forward”, while Mr Knight said she would “deliver on the promise we made to our voters”.

Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely also told BBC Newsnight he believes Ms Truss is most likely to provide “clarity of leadership”, and he suspects she will announce her candidacy over the weekend or early next week – although that is “up to her”.

Mr Baker, a prominent Brexiteer, had told the PA news agency that Tory blog ConservativeHome “consistently put me in their top 10 for next prime minister, they sometimes put me in their top five”.

But he said it would be “very difficult” to persuade colleagues to back him for the party-wide ballot without Cabinet experience.

On Friday evening, he tweeted: “I considered standing for the leadership. My priorities were delivering against our manifesto with our mandate, cutting taxes and seeing through Brexit.

“Happily I no longer need to stand. @SuellaBraverman will deliver these priorities and more.”

Earlier, Mr Sunak announced his bid for leader on Twitter, saying: “Let’s restore trust, rebuild the economy and reunite the country.”

His move came as allies of former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was runner-up to Boris Johnson in 2019, said he was “virtually certain” to stand again this time.

Among those publicly backing Mr Sunak are Commons Leader Mark Spencer, former Tory Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden, former chief whip Mark Harper, ex-ministers Liam Fox and Andrew Murrison, and MPs Sir Bob Neill and Paul Maynard.

The former chancellor released a glossy launch video in which he set out his family history, saying: “Our country faces huge challenges, the most serious for a generation.

“And the decisions we make today will decide whether the next generation of British people will also have the chance of a better future.”

Those in support of Mr Sunak have been sharing a link to his campaign website, www.ready4rishi.com.

It appears that a site with a slightly different name, www.readyforrishi.com, which redirects to the official campaign page, was set up in December 2021.

Mr Sunak’s team said domains are bought all the time, adding that they had been transferred a number of them.

Asked how advanced Mr Sunak’s campaign was, Mr Spencer told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that he had not been approached by the former chancellor until “very late last night”.

He added: “There are a lot of people expressing support for him and I’m sure they’ll be declaring in the very near future.”

Mr Spencer said there were “no secrets” to Mr Sunak, adding “there are no skeletons in that cupboard”.

Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)
Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA) (PA Media)

Mr Sunak, whose name on Twitter now reads “Ready For Rishi”, has entered what is likely to be a crowded field, with several competitors already apparent.

Even before he made his formal announcement, he had come under fire from Johnson loyalists, with Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg denouncing him as a “high tax chancellor” who failed to curb inflation.

Mr Rees-Mogg went on to tell the BBC’s Any Questions on Friday: “I will not be endorsing Mr Sunak for prime minister.

“I belong to a party that believes in low taxation and the former chancellor has talked about low taxation and delivered higher taxation.

“I will support a leader who believes in keeping public expenditure under control which I think is essential to deal with inflation.”

The Times reported that Ms Badenoch was launching her campaign with a pledge to radically reduce the size and influence of the state.

She would preside over a “limited government focused on the essentials”, the newspaper said.

The absence of a clear front-runner in the leadership race has tempted a number of less-fancied contenders to step forward – with backbencher John Baron saying he will be “taking soundings” over the weekend.

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has already said he will be be putting his name forward.

More are expected in the coming days including Mr Sunak’s successor as Chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, and Ms Truss.

While Mr Zahawi has not yet launched a bid, Tory peer and minister Lord Goldsmith said on Friday evening he “stands apart from most rivals”.

Following elections to the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee on Monday, the new body will draw up a timetable for the leadership election.

After his acrimonious resignation speech on Thursday, many MPs are anxious to see Mr Johnson out of No 10 as quickly as possible – fearing a summer of “chaos” if he remains.

Downing Street however insisted he would not stand aside to allow Mr Raab to take over as a caretaker prime minister.

Labour has confirmed that it will table a Commons vote of no confidence in the Government if Mr Johnson refuses to go voluntarily.

However in order to succeed it would require Tory MPs to vote with them – or at least abstain in large numbers – which would appear unlikely given it could lead to a general election they were likely to lose.

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