George Osborne’s allies are taking soundings this weekend among Tory MPs on whether the chancellor should stand against Boris Johnson to be the new Tory leader.
Senior Conservative MPs were contacted on Saturday to gauge the level of enthusiasm for a leadership bid by the chancellor, who has been all but silent since the country ignored his advice and voted to leave the European Union.
The moves by the Osborne camp came to light as parliamentary colleagues of Johnson, the leading Brexit campaigner and former mayor of London, said they believed he would declare his candidacy early this week.
While his aides said he had not made any decision and was focusing on reassuring people after the referendum result, it is likely he will make his announcement after the executive of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers meets on Monday to determine the rules and timetable for the contest.
Osborne and the home secretary, Theresa May, are now seen as potential “stop Boris” candidates after David Cameron announced on Friday that he would step down in the autumn.
A close ally of Cameron insisted he would not be part of any “stop Boris” campaign either behind the scenes or publicly. He also stressed that Cameron felt no bitterness towards Johnson or Michael Gove. “He is not going to interfere in the leadership. Reports on who he is and isn’t prepared to back are wide of the mark. He wants to be clear – we fought hard but in the end the country voted to leave the EU on a big turnout. So there is no bitterness and no recriminations on his part.”
Only a few months ago, Osborne was seen as a likely successor to Cameron, later in this parliament. But a disastrous recent budget and his role as lead player in the Remain campaign have damaged his chances. In the run-up to the vote, Osborne warned that leaving the EU would mean calling an emergency budget in order to slash spending in response to an inevitable economic shock that would choke off tax revenue. The move infuriated many Tory MPs, who believed it was an attempt to scare the country and would never happen.
On Saturday night, pro-Brexit MPs said Osborne had “not a cat in hell’s chance” of winning the leadership. One senior member of the parliamentary party said he would be “mad” to go for it because it would lead to another humiliation. “If he does, it will show once and for all that he has no political antennae at all.”
Osborne’s aides were unavailable for comment. Johnson is the clear favourite, having taken a leading role in the campaign to leave the EU. He is also popular with Tory party members, who will have the final say after MPs have whittled the list of entrants down to two in a series of ballots. A member of the 1922 committee said: “I wouldn’t say Boris is a shoo-in. He is a Marmite candidate. And in a leadership contest things can go wrong. But he is in pole position.”
Gove, his fellow Brexit campaigner, is thought unlikely to join the contest, having said repeatedly that he does not feel up to the demands of the job. A friend of Johnson said he expected the pair would meet within the next 48 hours to decide their next move together. “I think a Boris/Michael dream ticket would be the most likely. Perhaps with Michael as Boris’s chancellor.”
Senior members of the party are concerned that Cameron’s decision to step down by the time of the next Tory conference in October leaves too little time for a proper contest. They want a “beauty parade” of leading contenders at the conference before a vote by the 150,000-strong party membership.
The chancellor’s allies believe he still has strong support in the parliamentary party. One senior Tory MP said: “George hasn’t given up hope. He has support in the party to get on the ballot, although I think the membership would surely support Boris.”
Treasury sources said the chancellor had spent the period since the referendum trying to limit the economic damage from the Brexit vote. He has held discussions with fellow finance ministers across the world, as well as other key figures, including Bank of England governor Mark Carney.
Other possible candidates include junior minister Dominic Raab and employment minister Priti Patel, both leading lights in the Brexit camp. Another MP said: “There is a chance a new name will prove to be the star of the contest. That is what happened with David Cameron in 2005. But they would have to beat Boris and that would be tough.”
May is seen as the second favourite. Although she backed staying in the EU, she kept a deliberately low profile in the campaign, and did not attract the level of criticism that was aimed at Osborne from anti-EU forces in the party.
“Theresa has plenty to recommend her. If there was a crisis, a terrorist incident or something requiring a steady hand, would people want her or Boris?”
Many of the UK’s elected members of the European parliament have vowed to work until they lose their jobs as a result of Brexit, AP adds.
Until the UK formally leaves the union, which could follow two years of negotiations, the country’s 73 MEPs can still take part in votes, said an EU spokeswoman in Brussels. Some have indicated they will continue to vote until the day they leave office, with those from Ukip saying they will abstain from decisions that do not affect Britain.
The current set of UK MEPs, who are paid a basic salary of £5,200 a month after EU taxes, were elected in 2014 on a turnout of 35.6% and the next European election is not until 2019. Olga Dziewulska, of the EU Information Office in the UK, said: “MEPs have a democratic mandate until 2019, but their fate will be decided in the renegotiation package. For now, technically, until things are decided, the UK remains a member and MEPs retain the mandate.”