As Team Boris settles scores, ruthless Tories switch focus to final five

Boris Johnson looked both deflated and defiant as he strode through a London street on Friday, heckled by a member of the public about the mess he had left the country in.

“I cannot, unfortunately, get on with doing what I wanted to do, so it will be up to somebody else now,” he said, adding that claims he should be the one taking responsibility for Brexit were “nonsense” and “rubbish”.

His only words about the actions of his friend Michael Gove, which put him out of the race to be the new prime minister, were: “I wish him every possible success.”

If Johnson appeared keen to draw a line under his political downfall, his colleagues in Westminster were having no problem with doing just that.

The former London mayor’s undoing has been blamed on his failure to meet Gove’s demands and delays in securing the support of key Brexiter Andrea Leadsom. At the heart of it was Johnson’s failure to hand Leadsom a letter confirming her place in the “top three” of the team or tweet a message about the “dream ticket” bid with her and Gove. His shambolic approach is said to have been the final straw for Gove.

In turn, Johnson’s allies have hit back, furiously suggesting Gove planned the change of heart all along and hinting at the influence of a vengeful George Osborne in locking Johnson out of the race.

But MPs have already moved on, consumed with the next battle that will take place over the next four days – to sign people up to the campaigns of the remaining five contenders: Theresa May, Gove, Stephen Crabb, Leadsom and Liam Fox.

They now have only the weekend and a private hustings on Monday night to make up their mind about who to back in the first round of voting, which takes place on Tuesday and will knock out the bottom contender. On each Thursday and Tuesday thereafter, another candidate will be knocked out, until there is a shortlist of two to put to the membership.

Many of them are already treating the process like a game of chess in order to best exclude the candidate they hate the most. In many cases, this appears to be Gove, who formally launched his bid for the leadership on Friday with a claim that he had tried almost everything to stop himself going for the top job.

Following the leave vote, there was a sizeable “Stop Boris” contingent in the party made up of Tory remain campaigners and Downing Street loyalists, before Gove put paid to the favourite’s ambitions.

This now appears to have transferred its efforts into a “Stop Gove” operation, with most of the support among MPs going to May, the home secretary, who has the most backers by far.

However, the anti-Gove camp has also been boosted by a number of leave-supporting Johnson backers transferring their loyalties to Leadsom, the energy minister who made a name for herself during the referendum debates.

“The whole thing has made me feel hollow inside,” says one Tory MP. “And what we will probably find is the wind blowing in favour of candidates free from the testosterone-fuelled world of plotting and intrigue. That will play to the benefit of Theresa May, who has kept out of the boys’ club, and Andrea Leadsom.”

Tim Loughton, a former Tory minister and friend of Leadsom, said she was picking up support from remainers as well as leavers, because she had the depth of a background in the City as well as policy work on early years and mental health.

“We are hoovering up quite a few [former Johnson supporters] but it looks like quite a few have been part of an advance party plot against Gove anyway,” he said. “We are not really interested in who did what to whom with what.

“But I couldn’t get into my office yesterday, it was a constant stream of MPs knocking on the door saying ‘how can we help?’ And people saying ‘thank God she’s standing’. We must have a candidate on the final two who is on the leave side and somebody who does normal.”

Among these early declarers for Leadsom are a number of the most serious Eurosceptics, including Steve Baker, the chair of the Conservative leave group, Bernard Jenkin, Owen Paterson and the activists for Leave.EU, which was founded by Ukip donor Arron Banks.

“I think she’s the only one who is really going to deliver what we want,” Paterson said. “She also has this other interesting side that she has really good business experience.”

Allies of Gove insist he should not be discounted, especially given his popularity with the grassroots members if he makes it on to the shortlist.

Some former backers of Johnson have publicly declared their disgust at the justice secretary, including former campaign chiefs Jake Berry and Ben Wallace.

But there were many others on Friday who still had quiet confidence that the justice secretary had the right qualities to be a good Conservative prime minister and leader.

Conor Burns, a Tory MP who switched from Johnson to Gove, said: “I was one of the people who had been saying to him for a long time that he should stand.

“On the basis that he was going to back Boris, I was minded to do the same. So I got involved in the Boris team. But having argued with Michael for years that he should be a candidate, I feel a moral obligation to vote for him in the first ballot.”

However, he voiced some reservations about the impact of Gove’s decision on his chances in the race.

“I think he’s certainly got a job to do to reassure colleagues who may have been unsettled by recent events,” Burns added.

Another Tory outer said he was agonised about the choice, as candidates offered their patronage and pet policies.

“What Michael has done obviously isn’t good, but this is politics and he’s the best thinker we’ve got,” he said, adding that he would take the weekend to make up his mind.

While Leadsom and Gove fight for the endorsements of the rest of the leave MPs, May appeared to have more than enough to go round. Some allies of Gove even began to let it be known they believe May could be lending supporters to Leadsom in order to keep the justice secretary out of the race.

There were almost 100 MPs on her list by the end of Friday, giving May nearly enough backers to be guaranteed a place on the shortlist.

And with a formidable team in place, from her former communications adviser Fiona Hill to Stephen Parkinson, the ground campaign manager of the leave campaign, the home secretary appeared ready to out-organise her rivals.

Surveying the state of the race, one Tory MP said: “By next week, it looks like it could be a case of: may the best woman win.”

Powered by article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for The Guardian on Friday 1st July 2016 19.42 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010