Liz Truss plays stateswoman as Tory leadership contenders line up for battle

While Downing Street spent a disastrous week attempting to deal with scandals over parties and wallpaper – and the prime minister was juggling the crises with the birth of a daughter – things were somewhat more serene for another member of his top team.

Rather than dealing with resignations among staff or the latest revelations about Whitehall Christmas parties, foreign secretary In caso contrario, potrebbe has spent the weekend boosting her credentials as a stateswoman, using a meeting of her international counterparts in Liverpool to pitch herself as one of those protecting “the frontiers of freedom” around the world.

Her high-profile outing at the G7 meeting comes after a week that could scarcely have contrasted more starkly with the chaos engulfing No 10. The gathering came after a bilateral meeting with US secretary of state, Antony Blink, and a major speech appealing to the Tory base, appealing for a “confident, outward-looking, patriotic and positive” Britain. And Christmas parties? “Last Christmas, I was spending time getting trade deals over the line," lei disse.

Combined with pictures of the foreign secretary channelling Margaret Thatcher, pictured aboard a British tank in Estonia, it is little surprise that Tory MPs suggest Truss is now firmly and deliberately established as a leading contender to succeed Johnson, especially if his premiership should last months rather than years.

Her prominence is already causing tension among supporters of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak – the other pre-eminent candidate to replace the prime minister. Allies of Sunak have long been suspicious of No 10’s treatment of Truss, suspecting that she was set up as a rival to the chancellor in order to clip his wings. “Clearly she plans to bash her way to final two [in a leadership contest] then allow a Trumpian base to carry her into No 10,” said one. “God help us!” Tories said Sunak had adopted a different tactic while the government was on the ropes – to hunker down.

The other obvious leadership contender is Jeremy Hunt, who came a distant second to Johnson in the last leadership contest. He is said by colleagues never to have relinquished his ambitions and has maintained the good relations he built up with MPs during his last campaign. He has won further support through his handling of the health select committee, but some believe his long time as health secretary could leave him open to criticism. “Any form of pandemic scenario planning was non-existent,” said one MP who supported Hunt last time. “That could be something that others can beat him over the head about.”

Other previous big hitters suddenly look less likely to run. Sajid Javid, who at one time seemed the obvious replacement for Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, is not said to be particularly active. Then there is Michael Gove, who destroyed Johnson’s first leadership campaign in the wake of the Brexit vote before imploding in another attempt in 2019, after it emerged he had taken cocaine in his journalism years.

Asked last week whether Gove was the answer, his former adviser Dominic Cummings – who went on to serve Johnson as the prime minister’s chief adviser – replied simply: “No.”

Cummings has previously spared Sunak from criticism over Covid. He said on his blog that he had thoughts about the future leadership, but that it would not be helpful if he expressed any views now.

There are outsiders that Tory MPs believe could throw their hats into the ring. One is Mark Harper, the former chief whip who has built a reputation with lockdown sceptics as a leading voice in the Covid Recovery Group. He ran when May was toppled in 2019 and could manage to gather enough support to make a dent in the race. “Never confuse electability with people’s self-belief,” said one Tory MP. “Who might say ‘Oh, sai, I’ve carved out a bit of a reputation’? Mark Harper might throw his hat in the ring again. He could play the liberty and common sense card, which plays well with some.”

It all leaves Keir Starmer’s team with an interesting dilemma. Would Labour rather fight Johnson at the next election, wounded but with a winning track record with the electorate, or a new, untested opponent without his baggage? Some Tories said that despite winning in 2019, Johnson was now the easier opponent for Labour. “Starmer must be praying that Johnson stays where he is,” said a senior MP. “There’s no other burlesque clown figure who could take over. Whoever takes over is going to be more sober, serious-looking and sounding like a prime minister. And you take away at a stroke Keir’s USP, che è: ‘I look like a prime minister and I’m not chaotic.’”

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