THE next 24 hours will be vital for those battling to become the next leader of the Conservative Party as Boris Johnson’s votes are potentially scattered three ways.
Speculation over how Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s entry into the race will impact on leading candidate Home Secretary Theresa May has dealt activists backing her in Yorkshire with an unexpected electoral headache.
It is understood that Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom could be a surprise unity candidate for those who voted for Brexit but who feel Michael Gove cruelly forced former ally Mr Johnson into backing out of the race.
A source said: “Andrea Leadsom will win support. If you wanted a Brexit leader then Boris was the pre-eminent figure in that. If you wanted Boris you are not going to suddenly switch to Michael Gove because of the certain circumstances in which he was taken out of the game. Some MPs who voted for Brexit said they could not support a Remainer to lead the party, so there are also people like that who will go for Leadsom.
“Boris’ votes have essentially been scattered to the wind.”
Ms Leadsom appeared regularly on television debates during the referendum campaign and has a 25-year career in banking and finance behind her.
She has been MP for South Northamptonshire since 2010, and while she does not have as much experience in Parliament as some of her challengers she said the fact she campaigned for Brexit is vital when negotiations get underway.
Speaking to Sky News she said: “I think it is very difficult for someone who campaigned to stay in and who thinks there will be disaster if we leave and so on to suddenly turn it around and start believing that we can make a go of it.”
Last night it was estimated that Mr Gove had at least 40 MPs backing him, including Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns who campaigned throughout the referendum campaign as Vote Leave’s Yorkshire co-ordinator.
It is understood Mr Gove’s most loyal “lieutenants” were quietly sounding out support for him a day before he made his announcement.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is also backing Mr Gove, as is Justice Minister Dominic Raab.
One source said he expects a “nucleus of support” to galvanise around Mrs May within Yorkshire’s Conservative branches if she makes the final ballot.
This is because she has six years in Government behind her and because she had a solid campaign launch, appearing as a steadying force as the calamitous Johnson and Gove drama played out.
She presented herself as an experienced and hard-headed politician who is “ready and able to do the job from day one”.
While some politicians were driven by “ideological fervour” or “ambition and glory”, she was the unshowy daughter of a vicar who had public service at the heart of her beliefs, she said.
Mrs May is understood to have preferred a contest against the former London mayor over Mr Gove, whose intellect and style is more of an even match to hers.
Nigel Adams, Conservative MP for Selby, who backed Mr Johnson, said: “I think that the Conservative Party membership will be very disappointed that he’s not put his hat in the ring.
“He’s the most popular politician in the country and with the wider public with a great track record of success running London. I have worked very closely with him over the last year or so but politics is a funny old game with lots of twists and turns.”
Asked who a Boris campaigner naturally aligns themselves with now, he said: “On a personal level I would have look at all the candidates before making my decision.”