British Conservative leadership rivals Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak held talks late into the night, reports said Sunday, Oct. 23, as the feuding political heavyweights battle behind the scenes to lead their fractured ruling party.
Both are yet to declare they will run to replace outgoing Tory leader Liz Truss, making no public statements since she announced Thursday her imminent departure only 44 tempestuous days into her tenure.
Amid increasing acrimony within the splintered Tories, cabinet member Penny Mordaunt — the first and so far only candidate to formally declare — insisted she is the MP able to bring the party together.
“I think I’m best placed to unite our party,” the 49-year-old told the BBC, adding she was “the halfway house” between Sunak and Truss in the last leadership contest which only concluded seven weeks ago.
Mordaunt narrowly missed out on making the run-off, falling short by eight MPs’ votes.
Former prime minister Johnson and ex-finance minister Sunak are said to be intensely lobbying Conservative colleagues ahead of a Monday deadline to secure the 100 nominations required to face a vote by Tory MPs.
Sunak has raced ahead, with the 42-year-old crossing that threshold Friday and currently boasting the public backing of 129 Tory lawmakers, according to a BBC tally.
That compares to Johnson’s 53 and 23 for Mordaunt, though the ex-leader’s allies insist he has already amassed the 100 nominations.
“We’ve got the numbers,” Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris reiterated Sunday, telling Sky News the ex-premier was “keen to see what the parliamentary party thinks”.
– ‘Guaranteed disaster’ –
If two candidates remain after MPs vote Monday, the Conservatives’ approximately 170,000 members will get to make their choice next week, with Johnson still seen as the favourite of the grassroots.
The Tories have been forced into this second, now expedited, leadership contest since the summer following Truss’s resignation after her disastrous tax-slashing mini-budget sparked economic and political turmoil.
Johnson, 58, cut short a luxury holiday in the Caribbean to return to Britain Saturday and attempt an audacious political comeback just weeks after leaving office.
The divisive Brexit architect only relinquished power in early September, two months after announcing his resignation following a government revolt over a slew of scandals.
He reportedly met Sunak, whose July resignation helped trigger his downfall, for several hours Saturday evening to discuss the contest.
Few details have emerged about what The Sun dubbed a “secret summit”. The Sunday Times said it began at 8:00 pm (1900 GMT) and was ongoing at 11:00 pm, “in the hope of burying the hatchet and thrashing out a deal to govern together”.
“We’re all waiting for white smoke,” an ally of one told the newspaper.
– ‘Chaos’ –
Johnson’s apparent attempt to return to Downing Street has already been decried by opposition politicians, and even some in his own party who are demanding stability and unity.
“This isn’t the time for Boris,” Sunak-supporting Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker told Sky News, arguing another Johnson-led government “would be a guaranteed disaster” and implode within months.
“Voters out there love him and he’s a wonderful man — but he doesn’t have that meticulous compliance with tedious rules,” he added.
Sunak also picked up the key endorsement of trade minister Kemi Badenoch, an influential right-winger and prominent Brexiteer who finished fourth in the last leadership contest.
In a clear swipe at Johnson in The Sunday Times, she cautioned against “nostalgia for the cavalier elan of 2019” — when he won an 80-seat majority — and said the Conservative party “is not a vehicle for any one individual’s personal ambitions”.
Other senior Tories are pressing for unity.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who said Friday he was “leaning towards” backing Johnson, implored the three contenders to form a ruling trio, telling the same paper it is “not the time for political infighting”.
Meanwhile, Heaton-Harris welcomed Saturday night’s talks between Johnson and Sunak.
“It’s really important that the party unifies… I want those talks between Rishi and Boris to continue,” he said.
New polling released Sunday showed the Tories could benefit from a change of leader, after Truss’s missteps plunged them to unprecedented lows.
But the survey by Conservative pollster James Johnson still found all three Tory candidates had negative favourability, with Johnson on -24, Mordaunt -15 and Sunak -2.
The main Labour opposition, which has opened up huge poll leads, is demanding a general election.
“The country needs to get rid of this chaos,” its leader Keir Starmer told the BBC.