Friends or foes? How supportive is each leadership rival being of Boris

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Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street for PMQs
Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street for PMQs

Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister faces one of its greatest challenges after the publication of the Sue Gray report into alleged lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.

Several Cabinet ministers and backbench Conservative MPs are jostling for position if Mr Johnson is forced to resign or is ousted following the release of Ms Gray’s findings.

Some of the potential candidates have been more subtle than others, taking different tactics from showing their all-out public support for the PM, to distancing themselves from a potentially tainted leadership.

Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary

Ms Truss has taken the approach of unswerving loyalty to the Prime Minister over recent days.

Despite making a trip to Australia while Boris Johnson was facing fresh 'partygate' revelations, in her media appearances on Wednesday she repeated her line that she was “100 per cent” behind the Prime Minister.

Reiterating the need to wait for the publication of the Gray report, and that she wanted the Prime Minister to continue in his job, she did admit that reports were “concerning” and that there “clearly needs to be a change in culture”.

Ms Truss went on to say that she would support the Prime Minister “come what may”, going further than many of her rivals who did not want to comment on hypotheticals.

Although her public support of the Prime Minister will not go unnoticed, her private meetings have also been widely reported.

Dubbed “Fizz with Liz”, her attempts to court MPs ahead of a potential leadership bid, if Boris Johnson were ousted as leader, have seen reports of several MPs, such as Scottish Conservatives and Gavin Williamson, hosted in her office.

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor

In contrast to Ms Truss, Rishi Sunak has been somewhat missing in action in his defence of the Prime Minister.

Mr Sunak may be wary of tainting his own brand by being too close to a Prime Minister whose popularity has taken a major hit.

When Mr Johnson apologised to the Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Sunak was in Devon visiting a pharmaceutical factory.

The Chancellor did not offer the Prime Minister any words of public support until after 8pm, when he tweeted: “The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her enquiry.”

Unlike many of his Cabinet colleagues, he has largely avoided media appearances to support Mr Johnson.

When he did find time for a broadcast interview, the Chancellor left before he could offer the PM his “unequivocal” backing.

He said he would not comment on hypotheticals, but added: “The ministerial code is clear on these matters." The code states that ministers who "knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation".

Last weekend it was reported that Mr Sunak has also tried to distance himself from Mr Johnson in private conversations with other MPs, for example by referring to the looming National Insurance rise as "the Prime Minister's tax".

Jeremy Hunt, health select committee chairman

Jeremy Hunt has not been in the Cabinet since running against Boris Johnson in the 2019 Tory leadership race, but still has some support from backbenchers.

He has not publicly condemned the Prime Minister with the same vigour as some of his other backbench colleagues such as David Davis or William Wragg.

In an interview with his local newspaper, he said that Tory MPs email inboxes have been “red hot with anger” about the alleged parties in Downing Street during lockdown.

He said: “I am proud to be a Conservative MP but cannot defend what happened and won’t try. I know her well from my time in government when she was responsible for policing the ethics of ministers accused of breaking the ministerial code.”

He also admitted that his leadership ambition "hasn't completely vanished" in an interview with the Parliamentary magazine The House.

Mr Hunt said that it would "take a lot to persuade me to put my hat into the ring", but he had not ruled it out.

"I think the issues around ‘partygate’ are substantive issues,” he added.

Sajid Javid, Health Secretary

After being returned to government as Health Secretary by Boris Johnson, Mr Javid has been closely associated with the Prime Minister in his response to Covid-19.

He has not ruled out a run at the leadership of the party, but told reporters that “we have a leader”.

On another occasion he was asked about his ambitions to become Prime Minister, he said: “there is no leadership election” and that "[Mr Johnson] is not going anywhere”.

"I fully support the Prime Minister and as I said a moment ago, it's important for me and to the country that [the Prime Minister's] come to the House to apologise.”

Despite this, he did express his "anger and pain" over pictures of Number 10 parties, as well as revealing that he couldn’t go to a close friend's funeral due to following the rules.

He added that parties, “damage our democracy”. He called the gatherings “wrong in every single way”.

Beyond allegations over “partygate”, Mr Javid also gave his support to Nus Ghani who spoke out amid allegations of blackmail from Conservative whips.

He said the allegation that she was sacked because of her “Muslimness” was a “very serious matter” and needed investigation. She is understood to have confided in him about the incident with the then-Chief Whip.

Nadhim Zahawi, Education Secretary

The Education Secretary was also one of those who supported Ms Ghani in her allegations of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party.

He said Ms Ghani was “a friend, a colleague & a brilliant parliamentarian” and that “this has to be investigated properly & racism routed out.”

He has avoided questions on whether he will run for leader of the Party, instead saying: "I don't believe there is a leadership election."

Despite this, Mr Zahawi has toed the line on Downing Street parties, last week saying: “It's not true that the Prime Minister knew about this. He implicitly thought this was a work event."

Echoing the words of many Conservative MPs yet to make their minds up over the Prime Minister, he has said: “I would say that, actually, the value of fairness matters to people. Yes of course they’re feeling angry, feeling upset.

“They can’t turn the clock back. What we do about it is the fairness argument. And I think it’s important that you don’t condemn a man before you’ve had the investigation.”

Penny Mordaunt, trade minister

Ms Mordaunt, whose support for Jeremy Hunt in 2019’s leadership race saw her leave the Cabinet, she returned to Government in 2020 as Paymaster General, before being moved to minister for trade.

As well as being relatively muted in her support for the Prime Minister, she has been involved in a high-profile row over the construction of an underwater electricity cable project.

She was said to have been prepared to quit if the cable had been approved to run between her constituency of Portsmouth and Normandy.

The £1.2 billion cable was backed by a major Tory donor, Alexander Temerko, but was rejected on Thursday.

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