Rishi Sunak has gained a valuable ally in his likely bid to become Britain’s next prime minister as Boris Johnson backers were challenged over claims he has reached the magic number required to secure a spot on the Conservative ballot paper.
In a blow to Johnson’s potential campaign to seek a second stint in the office, International Trade Secretary and former leadership contender Kemi Badenoch threw her weight behind the ex-chancellor Sunak, insisting now is not the time for “nostalgia for the cavalier elan of 2019”.
While she admitted she had “on occasion” been a member of “the Boris Johnson fan club,” she said the Tories are not “organising a popularity contest,” and stressed the party is “not a vehicle for any one individual’s personal ambitions.”
It comes as Johnson has returned to Britain to plot a bid to rerun for the top job in a move that has divided opinion among Conservative lawmakers, including his former allies.
He arrived at London’s Gatwick Airport on Saturday morning with his family after breaking off a holiday in the Dominican Republic in the wake of Prime Minister Liz Truss’s dramatic resignation on Thursday.
He was rumoured to be planning talks with Sunak on Saturday – possibly face to face.
Sir James Duddridge, a Johnson ally, claimed the ex-PM had the backing of the 100 nominations by Conservative MPs needed by Monday to enter the contest to become leader of the party and therefore the next prime minister.
But Sunak supporter Richard Holden cast doubt on this suggestion, arguing the equivalent public declarations had not yet manifested “because they don’t exist.”
Sir Robert Syms, another Sunak backer, wrote on Twitter: “If Boris has 100 in the bag why is his campaign putting out pics of him begging for votes?”
In spite of being the only candidate to declare so far, Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt is lagging behind on public support from MPs, with just 21 to Johnson’s 43 and Sunak’s 110, according to a PA news agency tally.
Setting out her plan to “unite the party and the country” in The Express, she warned the Tories have “let ourselves become distracted by internal disputes.”
Mordaunt used her pitch to stress the need to “make Brexit work,” “focus on the potential of all our citizens” and “defend our Union and its territorial integrity,” pledging her support for reforming the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU.
International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, meanwhile, suggested Sunak would bring a “disciplined approach” to government, citing his “fiscal conservativism” and stressing that “right now, being able to say no is what we need.”
She said everyone in the party will need to make “sacrifices” to prove to people the Conservatives can “unite.”
For her, this means refraining from a second leadership bid, she said, while some will have to forsake a job in government under their preferred candidate “so that others can be brought into the tent.”
Johnson’s potential reinstatement has divided opinion even among his allies in the parliamentary party, including his former deputy prime minister and foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
Appearing on the broadcast round on Saturday, Raab said “we cannot go backwards” and pointed out the ex-PM faces a probe into his actions over partygate – the scandal surrounding parties held by Conservative government officials while the country had tough Coronavirus restrictions in place.
Raab backed Sunak, saying he was “very confident” he would stand.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I think the critical issue here is going to be the economy. Rishi had the right plan in the summer and I think it is the right plan now.”