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Sunak set for coronation as new prime minister, after Boris Johnson pulls out of Tory leadership race

Humiliation for ex-prime minister as he admits he was not able to unite Tory party behind him

Andrew Woodcock,Andy Gregory
Monday 24 October 2022 10:08 BST
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Boris Johnson confirms he will not stand in Tory leadership race

Rishi Sunak looks set for coronation on Monday as the UK’s third prime minister this year after Boris Johnson sensationally pulled out of the race late on Sunday night.

Mr Johnson’s retreat leaves Mr Sunak and leader of the Commons Penny Mordaunt as the only declared contenders in the contest to succeed Liz Truss, with the former chancellor enjoying an overwhelming lead in endorsements from Tory MPs.

The former prime minister’s withdrawal from the contest is a significant humiliation, after he authorised allies to brief that he was ready to return to Downing Street less than two months after his ejection and flew home from a Caribbean holiday to muster support.

In the event, he was able to secure just 60 public declarations of backing from Tory MPs, and his claim to have amassed the 100 nominations required to get on the ballot paper was treated with scorn by Sunak backers.

Announcing that he would not put himself forward, Mr Johnson claimed that there was “every chance” that he would have won the ballot of Conservative members that would be triggered on Monday if two candidates pass the 100-nomination threshold.

But he appeared to acknowledge that this would have thrust him back into No 10 without the support of a majority of Tory MPs, some of whom have said they would decline the whip or defect to other parties if he became leader.

He also accepted that his attempts to strike deals with rival candidates Mr Sunak and Ms Mordaunt had come to nothing, with the latter rejecting an appeal to back him and telling him that most of her supporters were more likely to switch to the former chancellor.

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In a statement, Mr Johnson claimed that he could have achieved the extraordinary feat of returning to Downing Street less than two months after quitting.

But he said: “In the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do. You can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament.

“And though I have reached out to both Rishi and Penny – because I hoped that we could come together in the national interest – we have sadly not been able to work out a way of doing this.

“Therefore I am afraid the best thing is that I do not allow my nomination to go forward and commit my support to whoever succeeds.”

Last night Mr Sunak paid tribute to his former boss: “Boris Johnson delivered Brexit and the great vaccine roll-out. He led our country through some of the toughest challenges we have ever faced, and then took on Putin and his barbaric war in Ukraine. We will always be grateful to him for that.”

However, Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader, repeated her party’s call for a general election: “The Tories are about to hand Rishi Sunak the keys to the country without him saying a single word about how he would govern. No-one voted for this.”

While the Lib Dem deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “This is a humiliating climbdown for Boris Johnson and all the Conservative MPs who wanted to put him back in No 10. While people are struggling with their spiralling bills, the Conservatives look set to appoint a former chancellor who lost the country billions.”

According to BBC News, 155 MPs are backing Mr Sunak and 25 are backing Ms Mordaunt. There are 54 who backed Mr Johnson but haven’t yet publicly switched support.

Ms Mordaunt will now hope to scoop up some of Mr Johnson’s supporters to add to her 25 public declarations of support from MPs, in the hope of reaching the 100 threshold to allow her onto the ballot paper by the deadline of 2pm on Monday.

A campaign source said: “Penny is still running to be the leader of the Conservative Party. Penny is the unifying candidate who is most likely to keep the wings of the Conservative Party together and polling shows that she is the most likely candidate to hold onto the seats the Conservative Party gained in 2019.

“Ed Balls, shadow cabinet ministers and Labour advisers have all said Penny is the candidate Keir Starmer fears the most.”

Mr Johnson’s bid to return to No 10 sparked an initial surge of enthusiasm from acolytes, but over the weekend he failed to build momentum, despite flying home from the Dominican Republic to rally his troops.

On two successive days, his supporters were reduced to briefing that they had the necessary 100 nominations for a bid, but were unable to name at least 40 of the supposed backers.

Mr Johnson picked up endorsements from cabinet ministers including Jacob Rees-Mogg, James Cleverly and Nadhim Zahawi – the latter just 108 days after writing a letter calling on him to quit as PM.

But his comeback bid was fatally holed by the announcements of totemic right-wing figures like Suella Braverman, Lord Frost – Mr Johnson’s Brexit negotiator – and Steve Baker, that they were backing Mr Sunak.

Mr Baker warned that a second Johnson premiership would be a "guaranteed disaster" and would collapse before the year was out due to the upcoming contempt inquiry into the former PM’s alleged lies over Partygate.

He urged Mr Johnson to wait until after the conclusion of the Privileges Committee investigation before attempting a return to the political frontline.

And hours before Mr Johnson pulled out, senior Tory backbencher Andrew Murrison told The Independent: “For the sake of party unity, Boris needs to understand that the game is up and now is not his time.”

Polling guru Prof Sir John Curtice told The Independent that Mr Johnson’s election-winning ability – the main plank of his supporters’ case for a second premiership – is no longer the golddust it was in 2019.

In a sign that Mr Sunak now enjoys a clear run to the Conservative leadership, Johnson backer Nadhim Zahawi immediately announced he had switched his allegiance to the former chancellor.

“A day is a long time in politics,” said Mr Zahawi, to widespread mockery from opposition MPs on Twitter. “Given today’s news, it’s clear that we should turn to Rishi Sunak to become our next prime minister.

“Rishi is immensely talented, will command a strong majority in the parliamentary Conservative Party, and will have my full support and loyalty.”

Earlier, Mr Baker had warned that a second Johnson premiership would last only months, due to the Privileges Committee investigation over alleged lies he told about lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street.

The committee will start televised hearings within weeks, and Mr Johnson will be forced to give evidence. A negative verdict could lead to him being suspended from parliament and facing a recall by-election which he could not be confident of winning in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Tory MPs mindful of the need to preserve their reputations for a likely hunt for new jobs after the election would refuse to “lay down their integrity to save him” in the case of a vote on punishments recommended by the committee, said Mr Baker.

“At that moment his premiership will collapse,” he said. “It’s a guaranteed nailed-on failure and we cannot allow it to happen.”

He said Mr Johnson should do “something big and statesmanlike” and put his political ambitions on hold until the process is complete.

The decision of Ms Braverman to back Mr Sunak was another heavy blow to Mr Johnson’s hopes of victory. A champion of the right and European Research Group stalwart who had been thought to be mulling her own bid for the leadership after resigning as Ms Truss’s home secretary, Ms Braverman said: “I have backed Boris from the start.

“But we are in dire straits now. We need unity, stability and efficiency. Rishi is the only candidate that fits the bill and I am proud to support him.”

And Prof Curtice cast doubt on expectations that returning Mr Johnson to No 10 would pay electoral dividends for Conservatives.

“Johnson’s popularity – never as high as is often suggested – is not what it once was,” said the polling guru, of Strathclyde University.

“On becoming prime minister, his net satisfaction rating was -7. By the time he left office at the beginning of July, it stood at -45.”

Since his precipitous fall from public affection, Mr Johnson had “never shown any sign of being able to repair the damage” caused by Partygate, he said.

And he questioned Johnson supporters’ claims that he continues to hold a mandate from the 2019 election, won on the back of a promise to Get Brexit Done.

“By the end of his time in office, support for the party among Leave voters was down to just 51 per cent,” said Prof Curtice. “In truth, the ‘mandate’ Johnson won in 2019 has not aged well.”

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