Boris Johnson’s would-be successors quietly prepare their bids

As dust settles along the empty corridors of Westminster with parliament in recess, most Tory MPs are looking forward to a break from the never-ending swirl of speculation about Boris Johnson’s political future.

But while the open chatter about leadership challenges dies down, possible candidates and their allies are continuing to tap up donors, sketch out policy details and organise teams and office space.

“They’re all still working away in the background,” one MP said. “Boris will leave one day – whenever that is – and they want to be ready to hit the ground running.”

Johnson’s possible successors are locked in a silent dance, quietly circling him and preparing “oven-ready” leadership bids but wary of moving early or brazenly.

“There are a lot of discussions happening in hermetically sealed rooms between two or three advisers,” a minister said. “If the candidate themselves is even seen to lift a finger, it will be over.”

The two frontrunners are widely known. 丽兹桁架, chided as the “secretary of state for Instagram” by some colleagues, headed to Russia this week amid mounting fears about an invasion of Ukraine. Often keen for a photoshoot or inviting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, the foreign secretary was snapped in a thick black fur coat and matching hat pounding the streets of Moscow and pointing at tanks.

数小时内, some newspapers were remarking on the resemblance with a similar, camel-coloured outfit worn by Thatcher on a trip to the Russian capital in 1987.

One Tory MP rolled their eyes and remarked that temperatures in Moscow were warmer than usual for the time of year. Another noted that given her recent foreign trips, the meetings nicknamed “fizz with Liz” she held with colleagues “seem to have fizzled out”.

The furthest 里希·苏纳克 has been able to flee from problems in No 10 is Devon, which he visited last month instead of flanking Johnson in the Commons chamber after it was revealed that a “bring your own booze” party invite had been issued to 100 Downing Street staff.

Also known for his sharp brand, Sunak appeared this week in black tie at a British Asian Trust event in London.

He set hares running by refusing to rule out standing if an election were to be held, dismissing it as a “hypothetical situation”.

Sunak’s Treasury team are believed to be ardent supporters, including the economic secretary to the Treasury, John Glen, and the parliamentary private secretary Claire Coutinho.

然而, the announcement of financial support designed to help with soaring energy bills has angered those who think the chancellor needs to rein in spending.

A government source said: “It’s very easy to piss free money out the door; how he handles the economy now is what he should be judged on. That’s why he’s in more of a rush.”

They added that a recent press conference where Sunak stood at a podium bearing the words “Downing Street”, as well as reports he was putting the finishing touches to a draft website for his leadership bid, had “pissed a lot of people off”.

Allies of Truss have also briefed that Sunak is “much weaker than her” on China – an attack designed to wound his standing among MPs on the China Research Group.

In the cabinet, the education secretary, 纳丁·扎哈维(Nadhim Zahawi), is considered impressive by colleagues for his performance as vaccines minister, while another senior minister was said to have raised eyebrows by hiring staff to work on “social media” with contracts lasting three months.

Mark Harper, an ex-chief whip, joked at a recent fundraiser about the slogan for his campaign in 2019: “It’s time for a party where everyone’s invited.” As chair of the Covid Recovery Group, he could highlight his longstanding opposition to the last two year’s tough restrictions.

国际废除核武器运动, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, is touted as a candidate who could secure the one-nation caucus’s endorsement. He has already declared his ambition to run, but a lack of ministerial experience and too strong a focus on international affairs may see him not survive far into the contest.

Also spoken about as a leadership contender is Penny Mordaunt, a Brexiter and former defence secretary who was booted out of the cabinet by Johnson in 2019 for having supported Jeremy Hunt in the leadership contest.

Hunt himself is also touted by some of the core team who helped him into the run-off ballot last time, but some believe a fresh candidate is needed for the next race.

Michael Gove has in effect ruled himself out of standing. “Been there, knocked back twice, won’t be doing that again,” he has admitted.

If he does run because he feels he has nothing to lose, Gove may struggle to convince colleagues he represents a clear enough break with the past, given several of his advisers are close friends with Carrie Johnson. A curtailing of her perceived influence in Downing Street has long been called for by some backbenchers.

MPs are even wary of being falsely linked to a leadership challenge. One invited to an innocent dinner by the former cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom was afraid of accepting, for fear word would get out and it would be painted as a plot.

There was also twitchiness when Conservative party headquarters carried out a check to make sure membership records were correct. The move led some MPs to interpret it as preliminary work for a membership ballot – a view firmly denied by those working in the building.

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