Allies of Theresa May are telling MPs that there would not necessarily have to be another general election if she is the next Conservative leader in contrast to Boris Johnson.
May is widely expected to announce herself as a candidate this week and is likely to be backed by a significant number of MPs as the “Stop Boris” choice.
One of the arguments being used to tempt backbenchers to back the home secretary is that there would be less need to hold a general election if she was the choice of the party. This is because she was in a significant position in the government when the Conservatives stood on their manifesto at the last election and would therefore be better able to argue for carrying on with the same mandate.
In contrast, Johnson was not in the government at the time the manifesto was formulated, which would put more pressure him to seek his own.
Johnson, the former London mayor, arrived with a huge entourage in Portcullis House on Monday after spending the weekend holed up with allies at his country home. Earlier, he had set out his thoughts about life after Brexit in his Telegraph column, claiming the UK would be able to introduce a points-based immigration system while maintaining access to the European single market. This is not an offer on the table from the EU at the moment.
Some pro-remain Conservative MPs who watched him arrive said they would do everything they could to stop to him taking over as leader of the party. One of them said they had been taken aback by the level of antipathy towards Johnson and predicted May would end up emerging as his main challenger, while other possible remain candidates like Nicky Morgan, Amber Rudd, and Stephen Crabb may just be putting down markers that they want significant jobs.
May is likely to pitch herself as the unity candidate, as she backed the campaign to remain but stayed above the day-to-day fray and burnished her Eurosceptic credentials by backing a withdrawal from the European convention on human rights.
There are concerns even among some pro-Brexit MPs about whether Johnson is the best person to carry out the complex negotiations that would be necessary to extricate Britain from the EU.
But one backbench Boris-backer said Johnson had shown his mettle as a “supremely successful” mayor of London, delivering the London Olympics on time and on budget. He said Johnson would spend the coming days “taking soundings” from Conservative MPs. “He’s thinking long and hard about whether or not to stand,” the source familiar with Johnson’s thinking said.
Both the Johnson camp and allies of the chancellor denied reports that George Osborne, who fought hard for the remain campaign, could swing his weight behind the former mayor. But the chancellor made clear at his early morning statement on Monday that he hoped to play some role in guiding Britain through the difficult negotiations.
Ryan Shorthouse, of liberal Conservative thinktank Bright Blue, said most likely candidates would continue the prime minister’s legacy – on social reform, for example – and the sharpest divide in the coming contest would be about how the next Tory leader would handle Brexit negotiations. “A large part of the leadership battle will be fought over what kind of relationship we will have with the EU,” he said.