Conservative party members will face a choice between two women – Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom – as their next leader and prime minister, it was predicted on Saturday night, as Michael Gove struggled to mount a viable leadership challenge.
Senior party figures said they believed MPs would receive “clear orders” from constituency parties not to back Gove following his dramatic decision on Thursday to turn on Boris Johnson and stand for the leadership himself. On Saturday night, May was the runaway favourite with firm pledges of support from more than 100 Tory MPs, with Gove, Leadsom and Stephen Crabb all in the low 20s, and Liam Fox struggling to get out of single figures.
However, support for Leadsom is growing. On Saturday night she said she had the backing of 50 MPs and was happy to be viewed in the tradition of Margaret Thatcher. “As a person, she was always kind and courteous and as a leader she was steely and determined. I think that’s an ideal combination – and I do like to think that’s where I am,” she said.
“I met her a few times. I was always in awe of her and I don’t think people should be in awe of me. I’m just a normal person. For me, family comes first.”
It emerged that she had the backing of some hardline Eurosceptics. Lord Tebbit, who served in Thatcher’s cabinet in the 1980s, said he thought Leadsom was her political heir. “She has a hinterland of business experience, which is something sorely needed these days among members of the House of Commons. If you look at her background, her beliefs and her record she is essentially a Thatcherite figure. She is the obvious candidate.”
Sir William Cash, chairman of the EU scrutiny select committee, said: “Andrea is the authentic voice of Brexit. She is competent, she is experienced, she has knowledge of the EU issue and she will deliver.”
Supporters of Gove insisted that the justice secretary would not quit the race but admitted it was an “uphill struggle” having only launched his campaign on Friday. “We are still optimistic we can make the final two,” said a source close to the Gove camp. “But we have ground to catch up because we started late. But if we get through to the final two, we believe we can win.”
There was a feeling across the party that, while Gove might survive a round or two of the voting process that begins on Tuesday, his dramatic decision to knife Johnson by declaring him unfit to run the country and then announcing his own candidature – after years of insisting he was not interested in the top job – had left him in an all but hopeless position.
Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome website for grassroots Tories, said the signs were not good for Gove. “It is very difficult for him, as many Tory MPs – rightly or wrongly – see him as having lost the moral high ground.”
Sources close to Gove said he was ringing as many MPs as he could to rally support. They said he was winning converts from all wings of the party and not just the Eurosceptic right, where Leadsom, a former City banker, was strong. Asked if he had contacted Johnson, the man with whom he led the Brexit campaign but then turned on, one Gove supporter said: “He tried yesterday to call Boris, but he couldn’t get through. He will be trying again.”
Leadsom is seen as more likely than Gove to compete with home secretary May once the list of five has been whittled down to a final two. She will launch her campaign at a Westminster restaurant on Monday. Her supporters say she will unveil a new batch of senior MPs, some from the party’s Eurosceptic right, but others regarded as more moderate. Her pitch will be that, having delivered a vote to leave the EU, Britain needs a prime minister who backed Brexit rather than May, who supported Remain.
“I think it’s very difficult for somebody who doesn’t agree with that, who is reluctantly following the wishes of the people. I think it’s quite hard for them to really see the opportunities,” she said.
Will Wragg, Tory MP for Hazel Grove, part of the Leadsom campaign team, said: “It looks like it could be two women going to the country.”
Leadsom will appear on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Programme on Sunday as she tries to raise her profile. A campaign spokesman would not be drawn on Gove’s behaviour towards Johnson, but added: “She is fighting an honourable campaign.”
Another member of the Gove camp said they were predicting that the race “would have plenty of twists and further surprises” as Conservatives focused on which Brexit-backing candidate could best defeat May.
The first hustings will take place in the House of Commons on Monday, chaired by the chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, Graham Brady. The first round of voting will then take place on Tuesday, with the candidate in fifth place knocked out. The next vote will be held on Thursday, when two of the remaining four will be eliminated. The 150,000 party members in the country will then decide the outcome.
Senior party sources said it was possible that if May is the overwhelming favourite the party could opt not to put the vote to the country. “You can argue it both ways. It would mean the eventual leader would not have a mandate but also it would speed things up and mean we have a new leader and prime minister sooner, which would be good for the country.”
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