A new prime minister will be in No 10 by the end of July, the Tory party has announced – with a fast-tracked process likely to benefit the favourite Boris Johnson.
MPs will whittle down the candidates to as few as two by the end of June – allowing the party’s membership to make their choice “in time for the result to be announced before parliament rises for the summer”.
A speedy contest provides less time for rivals to overhaul Mr Johnson – and less time, some critics of the gaffe-prone former foreign secretary will say, for him to make a fatal mistake.
Surprisingly, the statement did not stipulate that only two names would go the membership, saying only “the final choice”. More than two would further increase Mr Johnson's chances.
Some had speculated that the race for Downing Street would run until the end of the summer, with the new leader not installed until September.
But Conservative chiefs, who are desperate to end the drift and disarray of the last few months, have decided the first stage of the process can be completed in just two weeks.
A statement said: “Successive rounds of voting will take place until a final choice of candidates to put to a vote of all party members is determined.
“We expect that process to be concluded by the end of June, allowing for a series of hustings around the UK for members to meet and question the candidates, then cast their votes in time for the result to be announced before parliament rises for the summer.”
The board proposed “opportunities for non-members and people who may not yet vote Conservative to meet the candidates and put their questions to them too”.
“We are deeply conscious that the Conservatives are not just selecting the person best placed to become the new leader of our party, but also the next prime minister of the United Kingdom,” it added.
“That is a solemn responsibility, particularly at such an important time for our nation.”
Mr Johnson is the strong favourite in polls of the shrunken band of around 120,000 Tory members, three-quarters of whom want a no-deal Brexit, one survey found.
Crucially, he appears to be wooing some members of the so-called ‘One Nation’ group of Conservative MPs – making it more likely he will make it to the final two-strong shortlist.
However, a fresh poll for YouGov has underlined his marmite status among ordinary voters, with 28 per cent describing him as “a good prime minister” – while 54 per cent said he would be “bad”, the highest score of any contender.
Intriguingly, the statement was not signed by Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 backbench committee of Tory MPs and a board, suggesting he could run to be leader.
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