After the coup, the contest that will expose faultlines in a fractured Conservative party

Shortly after Boris Johnson struggled through prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, as the list of resignations from his government grew, a senior Tory MP sat down in a quiet corner of the House of Commons and agonised alone over what to do.

He had been loyal to Johnson until then but could see the way the wind was blowing. “I really don’t know,” he said, grimacing and shaking his head when asked where he stood on the great question of the moment. “I know we can’t go on like this. But I can’t think of anything worse right now than a leadership contest.”

Others preferred to consult colleagues. The corridors close to the Commons chamber were lined with small groups of Conservative MPs holding hushed conversations.

They were all agreed that, in many respects, this would be the worst of times to bring it all to a head – with a cost of living crisis and war in Ukraine both raging, to name but two of the issues facing the government.

But everyone was clear, it had gone too far. The coup against Johnson had a momentum that was unstoppable. What worried these Tory MPs most was not Johnson’s fate but what would follow. “I think the party will struggle to survive this,” said one former minister on Wednesday afternoon. “I think we will split.”

The same MP said Johnson’s electoral appeal had been so broad at the 2019 general election – thanks mainly to the “get Brexit done” slogan – that success had bred complacency.

The party had never really addressed how it could make a success of breaking into new areas that were less traditionally Tory, how it could govern for so wide a coalition of voters behind red and blue walls alike. “Are we big state or small state? High tax, low tax? How do we actually level up? It has all been left unresolved.”

Getting rid of the PM, they realised, was just the beginning. A leadership contest would blow it all open, expose the many faultlines, the unanswered questions from the Johnson era, and lay bare the personal ambitions of those who had long wanted to replace him.

A former Tory minister said on Friday he feared weeks of unseemly beauty parading, in which candidates indulged in policy “arms races” to win support.

“The worry is that it all descends into a Dutch auction with people promising lower and lower taxes, ever more Brexity hard lines on the Northern Ireland protocol and anti-woke this and that. It could all be quite damaging.”

Others were quick to warn how personal it would become. Shortly after Johnson threw in the towel at lunchtime on Thursday, culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a Johnson cheerleader to the last and a possible contender herself, warned that “the hounds of hell have been unleashed. People will shred each other to pieces in the media. It is going to be a bloodbath.”

Zac Goldsmith who was elevated to the Lords by Johnson, tweeted that his green agenda risked being forgotten: “Most of the likely contenders are people who, on the whole, couldn’t give a shit about climate and nature.”

Kemi Badenoch MP, the levelling up and equalities secretary before she resigned last week, has declared herself a candidate for the Tory leadership.
Kemi Badenoch MP, the levelling up and equalities minister before she resigned last week, has declared herself a candidate for the Tory leadership. Photograph: UK Government

By last night the list of Tories who had made clear their intentions to stand included the former chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose resignation on Tuesday triggered dozens more departures from the government; his replacement as chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi; the foreign secretary, Liz Truss; the transport secretary, Grant Shapps; Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee; the attorney general Suella Braverman; and Kemi Badenoch, who was levelling-up and equalities minister until she resigned last week.

Two more threw their hats into the ring later last night. Sajid Javid, who as health secretary was first to quit the cabinet last week and the ex-health secretary Jeremy Hunt. The trade minister Penny Mordaunt is expected to declare herself a contender but was not among those to do so last night. Yesterday the defence secretary Ben Wallace – previously regarded as one of the favourites – ruled himself out of the race.

This weekend, Sunak is seen as the early favourite and was said yesterday to have at least 80 Tory MPs signed up behind his campaign. Announcing in a social media video his intention to stand, Sunak said he wanted to “restore trust, rebuild the economy and reunite the country”.

Senior figures, including a former trade secretary Liam Fox, described Sunak as “an outstanding individual who’s actually got a plan to see the spending of the government controlled over time. What we can’t do is continue to spend money we haven’t got and leave the burden on future taxpayers.”

But no sooner had the ex-chancellor declared his ambition to run than the knives came out from his detractors, including cabinet ministers and people inside No 10.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, loyal to Johnson to the last, had his lines prepared. “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,” the Brexit opportunities minister told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. Earlier in the week, Rees-Mogg had said Sunak was “not a successful chancellor”.

Inside Downing Street, where Johnson will remain in charge until early September, there is undisguised contempt for the ex-neighbour. One senior government source said that people in No 10 had been studying the Sunak launch video and his website, and concluded from some of its content that it was prepared months ago, not over the previous 48 hours as Sunak supporters maintained. It was obvious, they said, that it was part of a well organised plot.

One government insider said it was clear that Johnson and his people would not go quietly, and that their next task would be to stop Sunak at all costs.

Johnson’s close aides, including David Canzini, were urging until late on Wednesday that the prime minister should not go.

“His message was ‘Bolt the doors. Don’t go, fight it,’” said an insider. Even when Johnson did quit, there was defiance and no talk of supporting his successor, whoever it was.

“It was all about his mandate. He had this mandate. There was this sense of betrayal and blaming the herd. He even had a go at all his MPs in Downing Street. It was all very Trump.”

Saturday brought rumours that Michael Gove, whom Johnson sacked on Wednesday alleging more treachery by the former levelling-up secretary, had agreed to back Sunak. These were denied by camp Gove. Were Gove to do so in the coming days and weeks, however, the anger of embittered Johnson supporters at team Sunak would be redoubled.

The former vice chair of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, Sir Charles Walker, said last night that an ugly contest was inevitable: “Rishi and his camp will have to soak up a lot of anger over the days and weeks to come. Will that prevent him from becoming leader? Maybe not. Will it hamper him as prime minister? Definitely. However, whoever replaces Boris will suffer the same opprobrium to a great or less extent. They will get the wrath of the disappointed.”

With all this in mind, Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, has been at pains over recent days to shorten the succession contest so that a new Tory leader and prime minister can be chosen as soon as possible.

When Johnson phoned Brady at 8.30am on Thursday to tell him that he had finally decided to resign, he told him he wanted to hand over to his successor at the Tory conference at the beginning of October. Brady balked. He thought this was too long and urged Johnson to say in his resignation statement that he would go some time before the conference, not hand over during it.

On Monday, the executive of the 1922 committee will meet and determine how to whittle down the candidates to just two in a series of votes by MPs by the time parliament goes into recess next week.

Later on Monday, Brady will meet the party’s board to confirm a timetable for hustings across the country during late July and August, followed by voting by almost 200,000 party members. The new Tory leader and prime minister will be announced on 5 September.

With so much bad blood, Tory MPs and members will be relieved that the contest has been curtailed. But they will know that the wounds opened by the fall of Boris Johnson will not heal quickly.

“The defenestration of Margaret Thatcher three decades ago still causes resentment even today,” said one Tory grandee. “ I think this could be just as bad if not even worse.”