Friday, March 31

Tory hopefuls face bruising week of scrambling for support | preservatives

Conservative leadership hopefuls face a bruising week in which they must quickly scramble for supporters in what looks likely to be a dramatically accelerated contest to find Boris Johnson’s successor.

After an acrimonious weekend in which several MPs launched their plans to cut tax, those currently vying to be prime minister are likely to be whittled down to a final two in about a week.

Sources said the powerful 1922 Committee of backbench Tories may increase the number of supporters a contender needs to 25, clearing an increasingly crowded field and adding a frenetic pace to a nascent campaign already beset by ill-tempered briefings.

This would enable them to get on to the ballot in which MPs vote the field down to a final pair. Eleven MPs have already thrown their hat into the ring to replace Johnson, with the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, and the newly appointed Foreign Office minister Rehman Chishti becoming the latest when they announced their candidacy on Sunday night.

Figures on the committee are also likely to push for most, if not all, of the rounds of MP voting to take place next week, with the “serious contenders” facing off the following week – by 21 July at the latest, when the Commons goes into recess for the summer.

But the detailed rules of the leadership contest are still yet to be set, with the election of a new executive committee set to take place on Monday evening. Opponents of Johnson are confident of winning, which would mean they could then begin working on the rules.

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Given the large number of MPs, sources said the committee may more than treble the number of supporters a potential Tory leader needs from the eight needed in 2019 to between 20 and 30.

This would allow a new PM to be installed by the end of August, allowing the victor to appoint new ministers with around a week to get on top of their brief before the Commons sits again from 5 September. “Allowing a new administration some sort of lead-in is good for the healthy governance of the country,” one MP said.

The committee has no control over the second half of the election, in which party members select the eventual winner from the final two candidates, overseen by the Conservative party board. But senior committee members are likely to pressure the board to allow as little as four weeks for the final runoff.

A total of 11 candidates have now formally entered the race, including Penny Mordaunt, the former defense minister, whose launch on Sunday misfired slightly when her team had to edit a tweeted campaign video after complaints from celebrities featured in it without permission.

In a sign of the complex and fluid tactical considerations in a hugely open contest, one of the possible frontrunners, former health and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, announced that if he won, he would make Esther McVey his deputy prime minister.

Describing the Tatton MP and founder of the Blue Collar Conservatism group as the John Prescott to his Tony Blair, Hunt said he hoped she could help him appeal to voters in the north of England.

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Allies of Priti Patel, the home secretary, say she has been asked by colleagues to stand amid concerns by Tory MPs on the right of the party that their current standard-bearers, the attorney general, Suella Braverman, and former minister Kemi Badenoch, might struggle to progress, although Badenoch received a boost on Sunday night with the endorsement of former leveling up secretary Michael Gove.

Chishti, who has been an MP for 12 years but was only given a ministerial role two days ago, is seen as a rank outsider.

On Sunday night, Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested the public will “think an election is necessary” after a change in leader.

He told Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show: “I think constitutionally we have evolved in a way where people think that an election will be necessary. Whether the prime minister will call one is another matter.”

A string of candidates gave media interviews on Sunday, mainly concerning competing and often eye-catching plans to cut tax – but details of how this would be paid for were generally skirted over beyond broad outlines such as “growing the economy” or “government efficiencies” ”.

Sajid Javid, the former health secretary, who resigned last week shortly before Johnson stepped down as leader, told the BBC his planned tax cuts, including getting rid of the increase in national insurance contributions intended to pay for a reform of social care, would cost about £39bn a year.

In the coming days, Javid said, he would produce “a scorecard which will show exactly how all of that [will be] funded in a sustainable way”.

Hunt and Tom Tugendhat, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons foreign affairs committee, said they aimed to pay for the tax cuts by growing the economy in the longer term, while Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said he would make efficiencies, for example using less paper in Whitehall.

Rishi Sunak, who resigned last week as chancellor, has called the idea of ​​unfunded tax cuts “comforting fairytales” – and is reportedly the subject of negative briefings being circulated among some Tory MPs.

The other declared candidate is Nadhim Zahawi, who replaced Sunak as chancellor. On Sunday Zahawi dismissed claims circulating about his financial affairs as “smears”. He told Sky News he had “always” paid his taxes and had “declared” them in the UK.

The 1922 Committee is holding elections for its 18 officers and executive members on Monday afternoon, but it already has a majority of members who were deeply critical of Johnson, who are all standing again.

Those part of an anti-Johnson slate will still stand even though the prime minister has promised to quit. They are feeling buoyed, given that many of those loyal to the outgoing prime minister have been given ministerial jobs, and therefore will not get a vote in the 1922 Committee elections, as this is only available to backbenchers.

Keir Starmer, the Labor leader, is to make a speech on his economic plans in the north-east of England on Monday morning, which will also condemn what he called the “hypocrisy” of ministers in Johnson’s cabinet who were now opposed to tax rises imposed by the government.

“Over the weekend, the contenders have made more than £200bn of unfunded spending commitments,” Starmer is to say.

“That’s more than the annual budget of the NHS, splurged on to the pages of the Sunday papers, without a word on how it’ll be paid for. I can tell you now – you’ll never get that from me.”

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