Tories split over 'retrograde' Johnson as Sunak 'gains support of 100 MPs'

One Rishi Sunak supporter urged MPs to remember why Boris Johnson was forced out of office

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson arrives at Gatwick Airport on Saturday. There may be an opportunity for a challenge to Rishi Sunak for Conservative leadership. Reuters
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A meeting between Conservative leadership hopefuls Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak took place late on Saturday` over whether they could find the foundations for a joint ticket, according to multiple reports.

Mr Sunak has gained the backing of at least 100 MPs, a threshold that means he can progress to next round of the leadership race to replace Liz Truss, who resigned as prime minister on Thursday.

Mr Johnson arrived at Gatwick Airport on Saturday morning with his family after breaking off a holiday in the Dominican Republic but only has the public support of 56 MPs.

The BBC reported the meeting had happened and the Telegraph that it was looking at the possibility of a joint ticket, but there was no word on whether there was any agreement.

One supporter of Mr Sunak, trade minister Greg Hands, called electing Mr Johnson a “retrograde” step and urged MPs to remember why he was forced out of office.

He said that after high-profile resignations from Mr Johnson’s Cabinet, more than 60 ministers and parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs) followed suit and left his government.

“As we sat there, more resignations of junior ministers, whips and PPSs were coming in,” he said. “I told him he had to resign, as he couldn't form a government. Doubtless others said the same. The next morning, he duly did resign.

“I have no reason to have any more confidence today that he could put together an effective government.”

Kemi Badenoch, who stood in the race to replace Mr Johnson, also backed Mr Sunak on Saturday.

British Conservative MP Rishi Sunak is ahead of Boris Johnson in the race to be the new British prime minister. Reuters.

So far, only Penny Mordaunt has officially declared her candidacy but Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak are gathering their support.

She set out her plan to “unite the party and the country”, as she warned the Tories have become “distracted by internal disputes”.

“If Conservatives want to continue to be trusted with the United Kingdom's government, we have to refocus on what we agree on and what we know we have to do, instead of letting things push us apart,” she wrote.

“As with the country, so with the party. I want to lay out a plan for our future which offers health, wealth and security for everyone, and I want to bring the Conservative Party together to deliver it for the people of the United Kingdom.”

Penny Mordaunt was first to enter the race but is third in public support. Reuters

Sky News photographed ex-prime minister Johnson and his wife Carrie in economy seats on a British Airways flight from the Caribbean with their children and said the MP would have heard “one or two boos” as he boarded.

Mr Johnson’s ally Sir James Duddridge claimed he has the backing of the 100 MPs required to be on Monday’s ballot but many of them have not publicly declared that support.

Johnson ally and Tory MP Andrew Stephenson told the Today programme he believed Mr Johnson still had support among the party’s membership, some of whom he claimed had wanted the former prime minister on the ballot for the last contest.

“There was a huge amount of support from party members still for Boris and they were quite upset that parliamentarians had got rid of him.”

When asked what had changed, Mr Stephenson said: “Well, clearly what’s changed is some of my colleagues who said they had no faith in him and urged him to resign previously, have now gone on record urging him to put his name forward.”

Mr Johnson has so far won the support of six Cabinet ministers, including Ben Wallace, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Simon Clarke, Chris Heaton-Harris, Alok Sharma and Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

Mr Sunak, who came second against Ms Truss in the last race six weeks ago, has reached 121 public declarations, far ahead of Mr Johnson’s 56, while Ms Mordaunt struggles on 23.

The ex-PM’s father Stanley Johnson has predicted that his son will put his name forward and beat Mr Sunak in a head-to-head contest.

Speaking to GB news on Saturday, the senior Mr Johnson said: “I think he will put his name forward, and I think he will beat Rishi Sunak in a head to head.”

Tory MPs will vote on Monday, and two candidates will be put forward to the membership unless one pulls out, with a result being announced on Friday.

Candidates have until 2pm on Monday to secure the 100 nominations, limiting the ballot to a maximum of three candidates.

Supporters of Mr Johnson believe that if he can make it to the last two, he will win in the final online ballot of party activists with whom he remains hugely popular.

Some MPs have said they would resign the Tory whip and sit in the Commons as independents if Mr Johnson returns to Downing Street.

Analysts at Berenberg Bank said there were greater market risks from a Johnson government, with the FT reporting the bank told its clients: “Given that a majority of Conservative MPs probably do not want Johnson as their leader, the prospects of mass resignations and a further descent into chaos would loom large.”

Updated: October 23, 2022, 4:05 AM