Boris Johnson pulled out of the Conservative leadership contest yesterday, paving the way for Rishi Sunak to become Britain’s next prime minister.
Johnson accused Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, who is also standing for the party leadership, of failing to come together in the national interest after they rebuffed his attempts to strike a deal.
His decision means that Sunak, who was already the frontrunner, could be named as Liz Truss’s successor as soon as today. It also represents a significant climbdown by Johnson, who had told his supporters that he was planning to stand and claimed that he had the support of 102 Conservative MPs — which would have passed the threshold required to declare his candidacy.
The former prime minister decided against formally standing amid claims from his rivals, as well as some of his own senior supporters, that he was struggling to win enough support to enter the contest. He had 56 public supporters.
Over the weekend he appealed directly to Sunak and Mordaunt, the leader of the Commons, in an attempt to reach a deal. Both rejected his approach, with Mordaunt suggesting that he should fold into her campaign instead.
The deadline for nominations is 2pm today. It is not clear whether Mordaunt, who had attracted the support of about 25 Tory MPs, would still stand or whether Sunak would be given a coronation. Johnson held open the idea of having another run at No 10 should the government collapse, insisting that he had “much to offer”.
In a statement issued just before 9pm he said that he had secured the 100 nominations needed to get on to the ballot paper, and that if he had stood there was a “very good chance” he would be back in Downing Street by the end of the week. But he added: “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.”
He did not entirely rule out a comeback, though. “I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time,” he said.
In the immediate aftermath of the decision some of Johnson’s supporters switched to Sunak. Nadhim Zahawi, the Cabinet Office minister, who had endorsed Johnson this morning, said: “A day is a long time in politics. Given today’s news, it’s clear that we should turn to Rishi Sunak.”
A source close to Sunak said: “We are not taking anything for granted. Rishi will be continuing to talk to colleagues tomorrow morning before nomination papers go in, and discussing how best to unite the party and take the country forward.”
Sunak had already looked increasingly certain to win the vast majority of support from Conservative MPs. By yesterday evening he had the support of 146, compared with just over 50 for Johnson.
These included the senior figures on the right of the party who had been expected to back Johnson. Suella Braverman, the former home secretary and a prominent Brexiteer, announced today that she was endorsing Sunak.
Sunak said that he hoped Johnson would continue to “contribute to public life at home and abroad”. He wrote on Twitter: “Boris Johnson delivered Brexit and the great vaccine rollout. 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.”
Mordaunt will now have to see whether she can garner enough support among former Johnson supporters to get her over the threshold to stand. However, she is not regarded as a candidate of the right and is likely to struggle to pick up a significant proportion.
Some on the right of the party could yet attempt to garner support for an alternative candidate — but with only a few hours to get a hundred nominations before ballots close this would be difficult to achieve.