Tom Tugendhat enters race to replace Boris Johnson amid calls for PM to speed up exit

Conservative leadership election could take months, with up to a dozen candidates

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Would-be successors to Boris Johnson were today preparing their leadership bids after the prime minister fired the starting gun in the race to become the next UK leader.

After an extraordinary 48 hours in which dozens of ministers, aides and MPs quit or withdrew their support, Mr Johnson resigned on Thursday as Conservative leader.

In his unrepentant resignation speech in Downing Street, he blamed the “herd” mentality of parliament for turning against him and said he had tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade colleagues that it would be “eccentric” to change governments at this time.

He offered no contrition for the scandals of “partygate” or his handling of the sexual harassment claims surrounding Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip.

Mr Johnson, 58, said he intended to remain prime minister until a new leader of the Conservative Party is found, a process which could take months.

However, calls are building for him to leave immediately and for an acting leader to head the world's fifth-largest economy.

Polling suggested most Britons favour his rapid exit, as claims surfaced that Mr Johnson was only hanging on to enjoy a wedding party with wife Carrie at his government-funded country retreat Chequers.

Who could replace Boris Johnson?

With no clear front-runner, about a dozen potential candidates — including backbenchers as well as ministers — are thought to be considering a challenge to become Tory leader.

Polling among MPs is expected to begin as early as Wednesday with a second round the next day, that should whittle the field down considerably.

Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor, was the first big name to put himself forward as the next prime minister. His annoucement on Friday afternoon was very quickly endorsed by two senior Tories, former chief whip Mark Spencer and Laura Trott, a ministerial aide.

"I’m standing to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and your Prime Minister," Mr Sunak tweeted. "Let’s restore trust, rebuild the economy and reunite the country."

The Commons' Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat threw his hat in the ring early, saying he was putting together a “broad coalition” offering a “clean start”.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, the former soldier said: “I have served before — in the military, and now in Parliament. Now, I hope to answer the call once again as prime minister.”

Being among the first to annuonce has seen former army officer gain early support among MPs with five now saying they will vote for him, including former ministers Damian Green and Stephen Hammond. MR Hammond said the next leader must have “integrity” to “restore lost trust in the government”.

While Mr Tugendhat, 49 does not have any experience running a government department, his integrity and clear-headed approach have won supporters. He is also a fluent Arabic speaker, learnt from his time in Yemen and several months spent in Beirut.

The MP is widely versed on Middle East issues and spoke out against the US and British decision to precipitately abandon Afghanistan last year.

Another person who The National understands has decided to enter the contest is the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who is respected for the effective and competent running of his department.

He was also a strong advocate for a rapid return to air travel after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Shapps was a loyal supporter and friend of Mr Johnson — having run his leadership campaign in 2019 — but was among the coterie of Cabinet ministers who urged him to resign on Wednesday evening.

That could win him respect among MPs and Mr Johnson might also lend him support.

Rishi Sunak

Attorney General Suella Braverman and Brexiteer Steve Baker have also shown interest.

Among the early favourites are former chancellor Rishi Sunak — who quit on Tuesday, helping to set off several ministerial resignations — and the man who succeeded him, Nadhim Zahawi.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was returning early from an international gathering in Indonesia, and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace are both thought to have significant support.

Graham Stuart, a new Foreign Office minister, publicly backed Mr Wallace if he decided to enter the race saying he was competent, had integrity and "a history of serving the nation".

Another minister considering a run is Cabinet Office Minister Penny Mordaunt.

From outside the government, former health secretary Sajid Javid, who also quit on Tuesday, and Jeremy Hunt, who was runner-up to Mr Johnson in 2019, may also stand.

Potential candidates for the post of Conservative Party leader, clockwise, from left, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Ben Wallace, Nadhim Zahawi, Tom Tugendhat and Jeremy Hunt. PA

Calls to speed departure

Former prime minister Sir John Major was among those backing calls for Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab to be installed as a caretaker prime minister until a permanent successor is in place.

Alternatively, he suggested a foreshortened leadership contest with Tory MPs electing the new leader who would then take office while party members in the country would be asked to endorse their choice.

Opposition leader Keir Starmer has threatened a confidence vote in parliament in an attempt to hasten Mr Johnson's departure, while Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mr Johnson hanging around “would cause chaos”.

On Friday, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said Mr Johnson should go immediately “as he can't be trusted”.

Newly appointed Education Secretary James Cleverly, the government minister put forward for the morning media round, said on Friday that he did not agree with calls for Mr Johnson to stand down immediately.

The Conservative Party needs to hold a full contest to find the best leader, Mr Cleverly said.

“[Mr Johnson] remains prime minister until a new prime minister is found; that's how our system works,” he told Sky News.

“I think that everyone recognises the incentive of doing that properly and professionally but quickly, so that we can get some certainty.”

In an “ideal world”, Mr Raab would have been the caretaker prime minister but “that ship has sailed”, the treasurer of the 1922 Committee which runs Tory leadership contests said.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown told BBC’s Today programme: “They decided that Boris Johnson should remain and he has said very clearly that he won’t be making any major changes during that period. And I think that is a good thing.

“Those ministers who are coming back in a caretaker role, having had resigned [from] work, it will be a little awkward for them.”

There is recent precedent for prime ministers to remain in place until a new leader is found — Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May all resigned in office rather than being defeated at an election, and stayed until a successor was chosen.

At a meeting of the Cabinet on Thursday, Mr Johnson sought to reassure ministers he would not seek to introduce any new policies in his remaining time in office and would leave any major tax and spending decisions to the next prime minister.

But after he made clear his frustration at the way he had been forced out by an unprecedented wave of ministerial resignations, many in the party remain deeply suspicious of his intentions.

George Freeman, one the last ministers to quit before Mr Johnson made his announcement, said the tone of his address did not suggest he would see out his time with “quiet humility and contrition”.

“My real worry is the instability will fuel a febrile moment of midsummer madness, where we choose the wrong person in a hurry because of the instability,” he said.

On Monday, elections will take place to the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee, which will then set out the rules and timetable for the leadership contest.

Under current rules, MPs will vote in a series of secret ballots — depending on how many candidates there are — with the final two going forward to a vote of the membership.

In a sign of what could be a bruising contest, Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Johnson loyalist, launched a stinging attack on Mr Sunak’s record at the Treasury.

“Rishi Sunak was not a successful chancellor. He was a high tax chancellor, and he was a chancellor who was not alert to the inflationary problem,” he told Channel 4 News. He is understood to have the backing of former senior ministers Oliver Dowden and Robert Jenrick.

Former Tory minister Andrew Mitchell said the next resident of No 10 needed to be someone “patently moral” who is “uncontaminated” by the previous tenant’s “mistakes”.

He told the BBC: “We need to have a leader who is unsullied, uncontaminated, if you like, by the mistakes. Particularly in the tone of the government, as well as some of its action, it needs to be someone clearly with experience. Finally, I think it does need to be someone who is patently moral and decent.”

Rachel Wolf, co-author of the 2019 Conservative manifesto and founder of polling company Public First, said a measured leadership race should take place.

“A really fast contest would be terrible,” she told the Times.

“There are some massive choices that haven’t been resolved by this government and which will split voters, the party, or both.”

Mr Johnson's tumultuous three years in office were defined by Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and non-stop controversy, which resulted in a police fine for breaching his own Covid rules and anger at his deceitful handling of a sexual harassment scandal involving one of his MPs.

On Thursday, he said he was “sad … to be giving up the best job in the world”, justifying his refusal initially to surrender by claiming a personal mandate in the Brexit-dominated general election of December 2019.

Johnson's new Cabinet

Even while eyeing the exit, Mr Johnson sought to steady the ship, making several appointments to replace departed Cabinet members.

They included Greg Clark, an arch “remainer” opposed to Britain's divorce from the EU, which Mr Johnson had championed.

The inexperienced Shailesh Vara was put in charge of Northern Ireland, with the government locked in battle with Brussels over post-Brexit trading rules for the tense territory.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said Johnson's exit was a chance to reset “strained and challenged” relations.

Convening the new-look Cabinet after his resignation speech, Mr Johnson confirmed his lame-duck status by saying “major fiscal decisions should be left for the next prime minister”, according to Downing Street.

Boris Johnson through the years — in pictures

Updated: July 13, 2022, 5:27 PM