The race to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister was already slipping into acrimony on Saturday as Conservative factions briefed against Rishi Sunak, the early favourite, while one senior MP called for “no hope” candidates to drop out.
With four candidates confirmed, but predictions that up to 15 could put themselves forward as the next Conservative leader, Tory MPs expressed concern at the potential timetable for the race, and the prospect of bitter in-fighting.
Sunak, the former chancellor, who entered the race on Friday evening with a slickly edited video campaign message posted on Twitter under the slogan “Ready for Rishi”, is viewed as one of the likely frontrunners.
But he has already faced criticism among fellow MPs for indicating he will focus more on fiscal prudence than immediate tax cuts, with his video taking aim at other candidates who might offer “comforting fairytales” rather than economic truths.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a key Johnson loyalist, said on Friday evening that he could not back Sunak, whose resignation as chancellor helped precipitate the loss of faith in the prime minister that saw him resign as Tory leader on Thursday.
“We have had a high tax chancellor and I belong to a low tax party and I want to see us getting back to being a low tax party,” Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions.
Sunak was also hit by the start of what is likely to be a wave of anonymous briefings from Johnson’s Downing Street, where his role in the prime minister’s departure has caused significant anger.
One senior No 10 official was quoted in the Financial Times as calling Sunak “a treacherous bastard”, while a Johnson supporter in the cabinet told the paper: “Rishi will get everything he deserves for leading the charge in bringing down the prime minister.”
Thus far, the only confirmed candidates are Sunak, senior backbench MP Tom Tugendhat, attorney general, Suella Braverman, and Kemi Badenoch, who was jointly a levelling up and equalities minister until she resigned last week.
In an article for the Times announcing her candidacy, Badenoch indicated she would lean strongly into culture war issues, an area that also defined much of her ministerial approach, saying she hoped to tackle “the zero-sum identity politics we see today”.
Steve Baker, another libertarian-right Tory MP who had indicated he might join the race himself, has now backed Braverman.
A number of other candidates are tipped to declare soon, including Ben Wallace, the defence secretary; Liz Truss, the foreign secretary; Sajid Javid, who resigned as health secretary last week; Nadhim Zahawi, who replaced Sunak as chancellor; and Penny Mordaunt, the former defence secretary.
A string of other MPs have indicated they might, among them Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, and Rehman Chishti who, less than a day after being given his first ministerial role, at the Foreign Office, after 12 years in parliament, said he was “actively considering” a run.
Sir Charles Walker, a former chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, which will set out the detailed rules for the contest, said he hoped the early stages of the race would not be too brutal.
“It is incumbent, obviously, on the candidates, however many there are, that they don’t knock lumps out of each other,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“I hope some of the candidates who know they have no hope of leading our party and becoming prime minister actually decide to drop out for the greater good.”
Under party rules, the field is reduced to a final two by successive votes among Tory MPs, with the last pair then put to a vote of Conservative members.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee, told Times Radio it was possible that the threshold for nominations needed to enter the race, and then the minimum number of MP votes required to pass each round, could be raised so as to speed up the process.