Michael Gove’s hopes of becoming Prime Minister have suffered a blow after a number of senior anti-EU MPs and the UKIP-linked campaign group Leave.EU swung behind Andrea Leadsom’s campaign to be ‘the Brexit candidate’ for Conservative leader.
Launching his campaign on Friday, Mr Gove pledged a hard line on immigration, “radical” action on executive pay and increased NHS spending.
But the Justice Secretary, who sensationally entered the race on Thursday after withdrawing his support from Boris Johnson, thwarting the his former ally’s Downing Street ambitions, now risks being outflanked from the right by Ms Leadsom, and is also facing recriminations from supporters of Mr Johnson, who has dropped out of the race.
Theresa May remains the runaway favourite, having secured the support of nearly 100 MPs. Mr Gove, Ms Leadsom and Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb, have the confirmed support of around 20 each, while former Defence Secretary Liam Fox is lagging behind and is currently the most likely candidate to drop out after the first round of voting on Tuesday.
It is likely that the candidate to challenge Mrs May in the final, two candidate ballot of Conservative members will be someone who backed Brexit.
Ms Leadsom’s credentials as the ‘pure Brexit’ candidate were burnished yesterday after she won the backing of former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and former Tory frontbencher Bernard Jenkin.
Wycombe MP Steve Baker, who chairs the Eurosceptic group Conservatives for Britain, is also backing Ms Leadsom. Meanwhile Leave.EU, the campaign group led by UKIP-donor Arron Banks, said that the energy minister was the most popular candidate among their Conservative supporters.
Declaring her bid, the Energy Minister, who was one of the leading Leave voices during the EU referendum debate, said: “Let's make the most of the Brexit opportunities!”
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, she said the next Tory leader must be someone who supported the Leave campaign ahead of the referendum. Ms May campaigned to remain in the EU.
She said: “I think it’s very difficult for somebody who doesn’t agree with [Brexit], who is reluctantly following the wishes of the people. I think it’s quite hard for them to really see the opportunities.
“I genuinely believe that if we want to make a go of it then we need somebody who believes in it.”
Mrs May wanted Britain to remain in the EU, but kept a low profile during the referendum campaign, and has reached out to Brexit supporters by making it clear she would respect the referendum result and bring an end to freedom of movement from the EU.
Her campaign was boosted on Friday by the support of two more Cabinet ministers – Michael Fallon and Patrick McLoughlin. She is also backed by Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock, a close ally of George Osborne, who has yet to back a candidate. But in a direct challenge to Mrs May yesterday, Mr Gove said that the next Prime Minister should be someone who backed Brexit.
The Justice Secretary faced a call to quit the race yesterday from Tory grandee Ken Clarke, who condemned the “student union election” tactics on show in his clash with Mr Johnson. The former Chancellor told the BBC that the Tories should elect a leader “as quickly and sensibly as we possibly can” for the sake of economic stability and that Gove’s tactics had undermined his hopes to unite the party.
Preston North MP Ben Wallace, a Boris Johnson supporter, was less charitable, joking on Twitter that Mr Gove would face the same fate as Game of Thrones’ Theon Greyjoy – a character who is brutally castrated.
But in a defiant speech in Westminster on Friday, which stretched to more than hour, Mr Gove said he was driven by “conviction” to become Prime Minister, and committed himself to Vote Leave’s campaign pledges to end freedom of movement and bring down immigration numbers.
However, he failed to outline a model for Britain’s new relationship with the EU and the single market, and insisted that Article 50, the formal mechanism for withdrawing from the EU, need not be invoked this year.
Claiming that last week’s Brexit vote would not hit “national prosperity” he promised £100m a week in extra spending for the NHS and a new wave of house-building. However, his optimistic projections suffered a blow as Chancellor George Osborne announced, while Mr Gove was speaking, that he was abandoning the Government’s flagship target to be in financial surplus by 2020, warning that the referendum was expected to produce “a significant economic shock” for the country.
However, Mr Gove insisted that the Brexit vote was an opportunity for reform.
Calling on Britain to show “radicalism and ambition”, he said: “The referendum showed in stark relief that there are two Britains: those who can reap the benefits of globalisation and those who are flotsam and jetsam in its powerful flows of global capital and free labour,” he said.
“For millions, the dream of home ownership is receding and wages are stagnating. For millions of our fellow citizens this is not a brave new world but an uncertain new world.
“And for all Britain’s power and prosperity, for millions, far too many, this is still not a land of opportunity. This is still a country where your schooling, your postcode, your background matters far too much - and it is the passion of my life and the motivation of my leadership bid to change that for good."
Committing to bring immigration numbers down and introduce an Australian-style points system, Mr Gove nevertheless declined to commit to the tens of thousands target that was in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto.
He also railed against soaring executive salaries and tax avoidance, pledging to reform capitalism to give shareholders more control of how companies operate.
Mr Gove ruled out a snap general election if he became Prime Minister and said that his former aide and Vote Leave campaign manager Dominic Cummings, who had been rumoured to be a source of division between Mr Gove and Mr Johnson, would not have a job in Downing Street if he became leader.
The five leadership contenders now have until Tuesday to rally supporters, before facing a vote among the party’s 329 MPs. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated in the first round of voting, and the process repeated until only two remain, at which point the contest is opened up to a ballot among Conservative 125,000 members, with a winner announced on September 9.
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