Boris Johnson and Theresa May, the main contenders to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, are set to launch their formal leadership bids this week amid a slightly chaotic and febrile atmosphere inside the Tory party, with renewed splits developing between leave and remain supporters.
Johnson stayed silent on how he might plot a path forward for a post-Brexit UK, surfacing only to play in a charity cricket match before hunkering down with backbench Tory MP allies at his Oxfordshire country home before an imminent launch of his succession attempt.
Conservative MPs told the Guardian that Theresa May had been canvassing support among colleagues and was likely to announce her leadership bid in a speech later this week. The home secretary has been a potential contender for a long time and is keen to be viewed as not merely a stop-Boris candidate.
While Labour is engulfed in the attempt by much of the shadow cabinet to oust Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservative differences are far lower key but threaten to become equally bitter. The Johnson and May camps immediately ran into potential opposition as various Conservatives did the rounds of the Sunday political talk shows.
For Johnson, a likely problem will be bitterness from some remain supporters. Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, was among the first to signal his dissatisfaction by warning Johnson that he and other Brexit backers needed to tell voters how they planned to reconcile “mutually incompatible” promises made during the referendum campaign over restricted immigration and continued free trade.
“The key leave campaigners made contradictory promises to the British people,” he told ITV’s Peston on Sunday. “I’m sorry to say that but they did … Boris is one of those.
“Now they will have to resolve that by explaining how they will balance the tradeoffs … between the different things they promised which are mutually incompatible. That will be hugely disappointing to a lot of people in this country who voted leave. How that tradeoff is made is the key question now for the future prosperity of this country.”
Reports suggested Michael Gove, Johnson’s co-figurehead in the official leave campaign who has laid low since Friday, had called the former London mayor to formally pledge support to his leadership bid.
Any delay in officially launching Johnson’s run could be in part because the former London mayor did not anticipate events moving so fast. One MP campaigning for Britain to leave the EU said that many on his side had not expected the outcome, insisting: “Boris wanted to succeed David Cameron, not topple him.”
May’s difficulty is that she would face the ire of some Brexiters in the party for her choice to side with the remain side, however low-key her role. Iain Duncan Smith, a prominent leave supporter, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the new Tory leader must be from his wing of the party.
He said: “Whoever takes up that job … it would be very, very difficult for the public who have voted for leaving the European Union to find that they then had a prime minister who actually was opposed to leaving the European Union.”
May would nonetheless be a serious rival, preventing any Johnson coronation. According to a poll by the Mail on Sunday newspaper, while Johnson remains the top pick for Conservative supporters when presented with a long list of candidates, if the choice is between just him and May, she edges it by 53% to 47%.
One Tory backbencher said he had spoken to “an awful lot” of pro-Brexit MPs who were sceptical about whether Johnson was the right person to lead Britain through the complex negotiation process. “The wheels are already beginning to come off the Boris campaign,” he said, adding that his own constituency party, which backed Brexit, had asked him to consider alternative candidates.
Justine Greening, the international development secretary, suggested the party should avoid a contest at all and anoint a Johnson/May joint ticket, in either order.
“A leadership contest now is not in the interests of our country,” Greening wrote on Conservative Home. “It will mean our party focuses inward – at the very time our country most needs us to focus outward.”
This would seem an unpopular choice with others, however, with a series of Tory MPs looking set to enter the fray, including Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom. The pensions secretary, Stephen Crabb, set out his stall in the Sunday Telegraph, writing about disenchantment in poorer areas with “a political class in Westminster which now looks the same, dresses the same way, and speaks the same strange language”. The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, meanwhile took to the Sunday Times to set out an “optimistic and positive” one-nation vision.
There is some support for more voices to be heard by delaying the selection of a two-strong shortlist to be voted on by party members until after the Conservative annual conference in October. When Cameron announced he was stepping down on Friday, he said a new leader should be in place by the conference.
However, Fox suggested the process could be extended. Another Tory MP, Phillip Lee, told the Guardian he was writing to Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 committee, to urge that no shortlist be made before candidates had a chance to present themselves to the conference, with a new incumbent in place in November instead.
“I don’t quite see what the rush is,” he said. “I think we should take some time over this – it is about the future direction of the country. As a practising doctor I know that people don’t make good decisions at a time of shock.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010