Boris Johnson resigns: sharp elbows withdrawn ahead of Westminster slugging match

But the campaign to become the next British prime minister is likely to be fierce in the weeks ahead

Prime Minister Boris Johnson reads a statement outside 10 Downing Street. PA
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Westminster’s corridors, committee rooms and courtyards had largely emptied by Thursday afternoon as Conservative Party members prepared themselves for the coming leadership contest.

Those in the hunt to follow Boris Johnson as Britain’s next prime minister withdrew into their various camps to plot their way to power.

The inevitable sharp elbows, underhand acts and deceits will come back with full fury when the first round of balloting approaches, possibly next week.

But the prospect of inheriting Mr Johnson’s in-tray of Britain’s significant economic challenges, along with the endurance required for a leadership tilt, has already led a number of leading figures to depart.

Michael Gove, the recently sacked housing minister, is said to have ruled himself out, as have Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Matt Hancock, who all ran in 2019.

The contest could well depend on which candidate Mr Gove and Mr Raab in particular decide to back, and for that pair it will inevitably be a Brexiteer.

That could work handsomely for Rishi Sunak, who went a long way to rehabilitating his reputation when he resigned as chancellor on Tuesday.

There is also useful polling which shows that of all the potential leaders he is the only one who takes a lead in a head-to-head against the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Nadhim Zahawi leaves a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. EPA

He also has considerable personal wealth to fund staffers on his election campaign.

Another person equipped with significant finances is Nadhim Zahawi, the chancellor who accepted his new post and then just a day later urged Mr Johnson to depart.

The Iraqi-born businessman may well use his war chest, persuasive skills and his large Chelsea home to mount an attack. Ministers are not allowed to use their government offices for political means.

But cash is no guarantee of success. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has pushed to the front in early polling among Tory members, with his ability to calmly handle a crisis demonstrated since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Liz Truss, regarded in some areas as a serious contender, will have a mind-focusing 17-hour flight back from a summit in Indonesia to consider her options.

Despite no longer being in government, Mr Sunak, who would be popular among Tory members, has decamped with his campaign team to a Westminster hotel.

Penny Mordaunt, a Brexiteer and Johnson detractor, has also co-ordinated a leadership unit although it is difficult to measure her popularity among MPs.

The interesting part of a leadership race is that past hatreds or good deeds can be quickly forgotten when hitching to a winning candidate, with the handsome reward of a senior ministerial post.

What will emerge very quickly are those who have taken time to prepare and organise after Mr Johnson’s sudden departure.

The wiliest politicians will understand that numbers are key. Some may adopt whatever means necessary to get votes, while others will allow their character and arguments to win over MPs.

A key question for the Conservatives will be whether they pick someone who is a hardline Brexiteer or a converted Remainer.

Unlike in the 2019 leadership election, however, Brexit is not such a dominating issue, perhaps opening the way for Jeremy Hunt and the inside bet of Tom Tugendhat.

Both are strong “One Nation” Tories, sitting in the centre of the party, and they may seem more able to win an election, which will be important for many MPs, particularly those who have taken Labour seats in northern England.

Also, neither is associated with the toxicity of Mr Johnson’s government. Whether that carries weight will become apparent in the next week when the first ballots are likely to open.

Others considering their position, or declaring an early interest in the premiership, include Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, Solicitor General Suella Braverman and new Welsh Secretary Robert Buckland. An early tilt could give them enough attention to at least secure a post in the next administration.

Parliament will be clear of sharp elbows for the next few days. For now, it will be fingers pressing phone buttons.

Updated: July 08, 2022, 7:42 AM