Tory leadership: Penny Mordaunt announces Tory leadership bid as row brews over Boris Johnson

Penny Mordaunt has become the first candidate to announce she is running to be the next prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party as defence secretary Ben Wallace signalled he will back Boris Johnson.

Ms Mordaunt, the Commons leader, vowed to “unite our country, deliver our pledges and win the next GE [general election]”.

It came as divisions within the Tory Party continued to deepen over the prospect of a remarkable comeback for Mr Johnson, just months after he was forced out of Downing Street over a series of well-publicised scandals.

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The former prime minister reportedly had the support of at least 41 Conservative MPs last night. But his former chancellor Rishi Sunak is still the favourite, and was on course to reach the threshold of 100 today.

Penny Mordaunt. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Many within the Scottish Tories would dread a comeback for Mr Johnson. Andrew Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, told LBC it would not be “in the national nor in his own personal interest” for the former prime minister to return to Downing Street. Douglas Lumsden, an MSP for the North East, said he was backing “anyone, but Boris”.

In a post on social media, Ms Mordaunt, who finished third in the last leadership election, said: “I’ve been encouraged by support from colleagues who want a fresh start, a united party and leadership in the national interest. I’m running to be the leader of the Conservative Party and your Prime Minister – to unite our country, deliver our pledges and win the next GE.”

The announcement came after she held talks with Jeremy Hunt, in which she assured him he could stay on as Chancellor if she won. Sources close to Ms Mordaunt said she had made clear she would proceed with his budget plan to get the public finances back on track, due to be announced on October 31.

Earlier, Mr Wallace ruled himself out as a candidate, indicating he was ready to back Mr Johnson if he entered the race. Supporters of the former prime minister have been urging him to mount an extraordinary political comeback, but there has so far been no word from Mr Johnson – who was holidaying in the Caribbean when Liz Truss announced her resignation on Thursday – about his intentions.

Cabinet ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Simon Clarke are the latest high-profile Tory figures to declare their support if Mr Johnson enters the race. Mr Rees-Mogg posted a tweet announcing he is “backing Boris”, with the hashtag #BorisorBust.

Mr Wallace said he was “leaning towards” Mr Johnson, praising him for his record on investing in defence and pointing to the “huge majority” he won in 2019.

He told broadcasters: “This will be potentially our third prime minister since the general election of 2019 – that means we have to think about that legitimacy question that the public will be asking themselves, and also about who could win the next election. That’s obviously important for any political party at the time.”

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However, any comeback for Mr Johnson would be hugely controversial. He still faces a Commons inquiry over whether he misled Parliament over ‘Partygate’.

Foreign Office minister Jesse Norman argued selecting the former PM would be “absolutely catastrophic”. Veteran backbencher Sir Roger Gale, a long-time critic of Mr Johnson, warned if he succeeded, he could be met with a wave of resignations by Tory MPs.

ITV News quoted one Tory source as saying: “It is amazing that some Tory MPs want Boris back, saying they think he can win them the next election. But will he even make it that far? If the Privileges Committee is as damning for him as it sounds, he is possibly gone by Christmas. The fact he is standing at all whilst under investigation is shameful. It's hardly the stability and unity everyone is calling for.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has called for an immediate general election, said the potential return of a man deemed “unfit for office” by his own MPs “adds insult to injury” for voters.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said there would be a “wave of revulsion” across Scotland if Mr Johnson was returned to No 10. He said: “There is no possible outcome from this dreadful Tory leadership contest that will be good for Scotland,” he said. “The fact is – whoever wins, Scotland loses. The Tories have trashed the UK economy and they are doing catastrophic, long-term damage with Brexit.”

Former cabinet minister Sajid Javid said he was backing Mr Sunak, insisting the ex-chancellor had the “values our party needs” to help them “move on from the mistakes of the past”.

Former minister Johnny Mercer also backed Mr Sunak, and argued he could not put himself or his constituents through another Johnson administration after the “terrible” lows last time around.

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Under the rules set out by Sir Graham Brady – the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee – and party chairman Sir Jake Berry, nominations for the Tory leadership will close at 2pm on Monday. Challengers will need the support of at least 100 Conservative MPs to make it to the next stage of the race to replace Ms Truss.

The first ballot of MPs will then be held between 3:30pm and 5:30pm on Monday. If there are three candidates with the required number of nominations, the loser will be eliminated. Once there are two candidates remaining, an indicative vote will be held so that the party membership know which is the preferred option among MPs.

Members will then be able to take part in an online vote to choose their next leader and the country’s prime minister, with the contest due to conclude by October 28.

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