Top Tories Are Quietly Making Moves For A Leadership Bid Despite Boris Johnson Seeming Safe For Now
Conversations about the Prime Minister's successor are continuing quietly behind the scenes in Westminster – with former health secretary Jeremy Hunt sparking significant speculation in recent weeks.
Boris Johnson has so far avoided a vote of no-confidence from his party despite significant anger among MPs over the response to the cost of living crisis, the PM’s involvement in lockdown-breaching gatherings in Downing Street, and the party’s poor results at the local elections.
It is widely expected that any movement against Johnson now won’t take place until the autumn, once the Met Police investigation concludes and Sue Gray’s report into parties at Downing Street are published.
During a string of media appearances in recent weeks to promote his upcoming book, Hunt was hesitant to back the Prime Minister and has repeatedly refused to rule out a return to government. Numerous MPs have told PoliticsHome that they were approached by allies of Hunt in recent weeks to discuss his future prospects.
Sources close to the health select committee chair have repeatedly played down speculation that he is actively plotting a leadership pitch, claiming that there wasn’t a sense within the party that the PM’s position was at risk.
Speaking to the BBC's Sunday Morning programme, Hunt declined to say whether Boris Johnson was an "honest" man, claiming instead that "talking about personalities is not a helpful thing to do".
He also told The Times that while he did not feel now was “the right time” for a leadership election, he would not “rule out a return in the future” to the frontline of politics.
It is not the first time the senior Tory has hinted at his plans — he told The House in January that his “ambition hasn’t completely vanished” when it comes to running for Conservative party leader.
The former health secretary is one of several names currently being touted as a potential successor of Johnson, with Cabinet ministers Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid; junior minister Penny Mordaunt; and select committee chair Tom Tugendhat all in the frame.
According to one senior Tory MP, chats in party WhatsApp groups regarding potential candidates are “alive and well”, while another said that many hopefuls were actively getting “battle ready” in case a leadership race was called.
“People are obviously making plans,” a third MP said. “I’ve spoken to people who are interested in pushing other people, and I’ve spoken to people directly as well.”
Many MPs are still quietly expressing their support for Hunt behind closed doors, with one claiming that he still had enough residual support from his last leadership bid to “make a go of it”.
“Jeremy is a respected grown up and the government is in need of some respected grown ups around the table,” a senior Tory, who voted for Hunt at the last leadership contest, told PoliticsHome.
There are fears among some, however, that his “time has passed” following his failed 2019 leadership bid, and that he does not have significant support from the party at large.
“We are all looking for something new that can win us an election. If he had a chance he would have moved against [the] PM, but he does not," said one prominent backbencher.
They added that, although they “like and respect” Hunt, “he has been around too long, cannot be the change we need”.
Another MP said Hunt was “yesterday’s man”, and that the former health secretary was unlikely to appeal to boths voters in Red Wall seats and traditional Tory voters in the south.
“I don't think Jeremy Hunt is really the answer to the problem,” they said. “The problem is firstly about restoring trust, but secondly it's about: how do you hold this coalition together?
“I think Jeremy would do quite well in Lib Dem facing seats, but I'm just not sure he's got that appeal in the Labour facing seats. The challenges will be to try and hold both.”
There have been suggestions that the other candidates are now drumming up fresh support as Sunak, once the favourite to replace Johnson, has seen a fall in popularity following speculation over his family’s tax affairs and his fine for attending a lockdown-breaching gathering in Downing Street.
Fellow frontrunner Truss has also seen a fall from grace recently, with some accusing her of using her response to events in Northern Ireland to further her own leadership ambitions.
One Conservative MP accused the foreign secretary of being combative towards the EU in order to woo the European Research Group of backbench Conservative MPs.
This claim was also put forward by a government source last week, who told PoliticsHome that her briefings on the situation looked like "leadership feather fluttering".
Foreign affairs select committee chair Tugendhat is considered the outsider in the race, with some seeing him as a preferable choice as someone who is “outside government”.
One supporter of Tugendhat said the MP represented a “proper reset” from the status quo following a “bruising couple of years” for the party.
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