Theresa May and Boris Johnson will on Thursday both announce they are running to become leader of the Conservative party, with each claiming to be the unifying candidate Britain needs as its prime minister after the divisive EU referendum.
The home secretary will be the first to make her ambitions known in a speech at around 9.30am, saying the UK needs to be “a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us”.
She will also address a key weakness that she backed the losing remain side in the EU referendum by announcing that she would put a high-profile leave campaigner in charge of a new department for Brexit.
“The job now is about uniting the party, uniting the country and negotiating the best possible deal for Britain,” she will say.
Johnson, who is widely considered the frontrunner after leading the leave campaign, will make his own declaration at around 11.30am – just half an hour before the deadline for nominations closes.
The former London mayor will pitch himself as a winner and a unifier, able to appeal to people across the country, after successfully leading the campaign to leave the EU. He will highlight his belief in social mobility and compassionate conservatism, signalling he wants to prove his claims during the EU referendum that he stands for helping ordinary people and not the elites.
He is expected to run on a joint ticket with Michael Gove, the justice secretary and fellow Brexiter, who will be promised a big job if he wins.
However, an email sent mistakenly by Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, to a member of the public exposed her lack of trust in Johnson to give her husband the terms or job he is after. “You must have specific [promises] from Boris,” she wrote.
It also expressed reservations about Johnson’s appeal to members and media bosses such as Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the Sun and Times, and Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. “Crucially, the membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will Dacre/Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris Gove ticket”.
A source close to Gove said it was just Vine’s own opinion but it chimes with some worries expressed by Conservative MPs about Johnson’s character and appeal.
Johnson has, nevertheless, managed to pick up a number of significant backers of the remain cause, including Nick Boles, the modernising Tory skills minister, and Liz Truss, the environment secretary.
May and Johnson are thought the most likely to make it on to the shortlist of two candidates produced by MPs, which will be voted on by the Conservative membership of 150,000-odd people over the summer.
In other developments on Wednesday:
- Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, became the most senior party figure to call on Corbyn to resign. Angela Eagle is expected to launch a bid for the Labour leadership on Thursday.
- The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, held a series of meetings in Brussels to press the case for Scotland’s continued membership of the EU.
- EU leaders agreed a joint position on the Brexit vote, saying Britain should notify them of its intention to leave as soon as possible after a new prime minister was in place. They insisted the UK has no prospect of keeping access to the single market unless it continues to accept EU migration.
- Arron Banks, the Brexit movement’s biggest financial donor, has said he is considering backing a new political party.
Two other Tory candidates formally launched their bids for the top job on Wednesday: Stephen Crabb, the work and pensions secretary and remain campaigner, running as a blue-collar conservative; and Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, championing the interests of right-wing Brexit backers.
Several others, including Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, an energy minister, are all still considering a run.
Despite the crowded field, a survey by the ConservativeHome website has put May and Johnson far out in front of other contenders, with the home secretary very narrowly ahead on 29% to 28% of those who responded.
Both are now expected to shy away from the idea of a snap general election after winning, as the idea has proved unpopular with backbenchers who fought one so recently.
They will also have to make clear how their vision of leaving the EU will deal with voter concerns about immigration. This may prove especially tricky for May given her failure as home secretary to meet the target promised by the Tory manifesto, while Johnson will have to square his “pro-immigration” stance with the belief of leave voters that Brexit will bring down numbers of new arrivals.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, raised doubts on Wednesday as to whether Brexit will ever happen, suggesting most leave campaigners do not truly believe in Britain’s divorce from the EU and do not know how to achieve it. After visiting Downing Street on Monday, he claimed there were a number of ways in which Thursday’s vote could be “walked back”.
But both May and Johnson will make absolutely clear their commitment to carry out the verdict of the voters in their declaration speeches a week after the vote that prompted David Cameron’s resignation as prime minister and party leader.
In her declaration speech, May will pitch herself as the candidate of experience, having run a great office of state for six years.
“We need a bold, new, positive vision for the future of our country – a vision of a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us,” she will say.
She will add the UK after the referendum will be the “same outward-looking and globally minded and big-thinking country we have always been – and we remain open for business and welcoming to foreign talent.”
May will also make it clear she plans to embrace leading figures from the Brexit campaign in any government she runs, while stressing that an experienced pair of hands is needed to steer the ship.
“That means it is going to require significant expertise and a consistent approach,” she will say. “I will therefore create a new government department responsible for conducting Britain’s negotiation with the EU and for supporting the rest of Whitehall in its European work.
“That department will be led by a senior secretary of state – and I will make sure that the position is taken by an MP who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.”
Johnson’s 20-minute speech in central London is expected to highlight a record of compassionate Conservative policies when he was mayor of London, such as advocating the living wage. It signals he will want to place himself firmly on to the centre ground like other candidates including May and Crabb.
He will also talk about the importance of delivering promises made during the EU referendum on a points-based immigration system, making sure money from the EU is fairly spent, that British courts are supreme and democratic control is restored. On the single market, he will say that access to this is important but not at the cost of freedom of movement.
Allies of both leading candidates have already begun to hit the press and airwaves in support of their candidates. Ahead of the announcements, one of May’s supporters, Brandon Lewis, a Conservative minister, sought to stress the home secretary’s reputation for competence.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “We are not choosing a leader like the Labour party. We are choosing the next prime minister. And at this time, with tough negotiations in Europe, Theresa’s track record and ability to take on difficult things – like Abu Qatada and Hillsborough – and her leadership skills are what is needed.
“Boris is great. He was a great mayor and we benefit from that presence. But we are choosing the next PM.”
He added that she was a “very normal person, just lovely”.
Some supporters of May and Crabb in the parliamentary party have begun to point out the number of Johnson’s backers who are fellow old Etonians, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Zac Goldsmith, Sir Nicholas Soames, Jesse Norman and his own brother, Jo Johnson.
Other allies of Johnson have highlighted May’s efforts to play it both ways on the issue of Europe, branding it hypocritical. The home secretary backed the remain camp but did not take part in much campaigning and then advocated a withdrawal from the European convention on human rights.
After the two announcements, the contest will kick off formally at midday and the candidates are expected to take part in hustings over the coming weeks. Party members will then vote on a shortlist of two, with the winner announced on 9 September in time for party conference season.
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