Britain’s new prime minister will be announced on 5 September, it has been announced, as the starting gun was fired on a Tory leadership race that will see the hopefuls whittled down to two by Thursday.
With just two contenders so far having the support of the 20 Tory MPs needed to get them on to the ballot, the nine remaining hopefuls were scrambling to shore up support by Tuesday night before knockout votes begin on Wednesday afternoon, with the first results announced later that day.
To speed up the competition, the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers on Monday opted to increase the number of backers that a candidate needed from eight to 20, and ruled that they would need at least 30 votes to get past the first round.
Former chancellor Rishi Sunak has secured the backing of nearly 40 MPs, while trade minister Penny Mordaunt has 24. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has the fewest public supporters – eight – while Suella Braverman, the attorney general, has 12.
Those who struggle to reach the 20 threshold could be forced to pull out within 24 hours and instead pledge their support to one of the frontrunners.
Mordaunt was given a boost by polling for Conservative Home on Monday night showing that she was the preferred candidate among party members.
Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, said there was “quite a big field” of those hoping to replace Boris Johnson and that it was shaping up to be “quite a lively contest”, but added it should be concluded “reasonably rapidly”.
The final two should have been decided by the time the Commons goes into recess at the end of Thursday, Brady said, with some in-person and virtual hustings held during August and a new prime minister announced on 5 September.
Sunak will formally launch his campaign on Tuesday, as will the centrist candidate Tom Tugendhat. Sunak’s launch will underline the need to deal with the deficit ahead of major tax rises, a hint at possible further public spending cuts.
Sunak will attack his rivals’ tax-cutting promises and warn that their plans will fuel inflation. “We need a return to traditional Conservative economic values – and that means honesty and responsibility, not fairy tales,” he will say.
Tugendhat, who has the third highest number of backers, beating Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt and Nadhim Zahawi, will pledge a “10-year plan for growth” and say tax cuts should be directed towards stimulating investment. He will argue for a need to retain spending on infrastructure such as road, rail and digital, as well as technical colleges.
“Tax cuts cannot be the only round in the magazine to fire growth in the economy,” he will say, using a metaphor from his military background. “A 10-year growth plan will include both targeted and sensible tax cuts along with other measures to stimulate investment, creating jobs and investment in every part of the UK.”
As well as a bidding war on tax cuts, candidates have also vied to be most generous on defence spending. Overnight the former foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, made another major spending pledge to spend 3% of GDP on defence by 2027/28 and to cancel cuts to the Ministry of Defence in his first budget.
Candidates on the right of the party are now vying to be the anti-Sunak candidate, with multiple contenders competing for MPs’ votes in a way that has alarmed some party grandees.
Allies of Braverman attacked Mordaunt on Monday for staying in Theresa May’s cabinet during the Brexit years. Steve Baker, the influential hard Brexiter who backs Braverman, said he had been a “bruised captain in the trenches … They chose to stay in cabinet and vote for a deal that would have destroyed the Conservative party.”
More candidates could yet enter the race, though are likely to face an uphill battle for nominations. The home secretary, Priti Patel, addressed senior members of the European Research Group on Monday night in a bid to win their endorsement in order to decide whether she should stand as a candidate.
Sources said she had vowed to ditch green levies and look again at the case for fracking, as well as arguing that she was the only candidate on the right of the party with the chance of winning an election. But she had not formally announced her candidacy by Monday night.
One former minister said Patel had been urged by some fellow Brexiters not to stand and risk splitting the vote even further. “We are already seeing Suella [Braverman] and Kemi Badenoch fishing in that pool – it will be the backers that Liz [Truss] wants too. We will end up fracturing the vote too much,” they said.
Another senior Tory source said the “fight on the right” was getting ridiculous. “We are watching Rishi sail past before anyone’s got their pants on. Now if suddenly it emerges that Suella is weak or we need to stop Truss, options will have been squeezed out.”
Baker has also encouraged his old ally Jacob Rees-Mogg not to run for the leadership. He was said to be considering doing do, but sources close to the Cabinet Office minister said he had ruled it out.
Over the course of Monday, candidates vied with each other for the most generous offers on tax cuts. Speaking at an event in Westminster organised by the Thatcherite group Conservative Way Forward (CWF), Nadhim Zahawi, the former education secretary who took over at the Treasury after Sunak resigned last week, condemned the taxation policies he endorsed while in Johnson’s cabinet.
The work of the CWF, which has produced a charter for lower taxation and a smaller state, which Zahawi has endorsed, was “like the first buds showing on a spring morning after a long winter”, the chancellor said.
“It is a sign that finally, after too many years of tax and spending skyrocketing, the political landscape is once again coming back to the sensible policies championed by Margaret Thatcher.”
Zahawi, who carried on with his speech even after a woman fainted with a loud crash in a packed and sweaty basement venue in the Churchill War Rooms, said he would cut income tax from 20p to 19p next year, and to 18p in 2024.
He added: “Let me be clear: tax as a percentage of GDP will fall year on year if I become prime minister. That is a promise.”
He also promised to suspend all VAT and green levies on energy bills for two years to help people with energy costs.
In an earlier interview, Zahawi said he would finance tax cuts by getting every government department to cut their costs by 20%, which his aides were later forced to qualify meant reducing head count rather than departmental spending.
In a speech in Gateshead on Monday morning, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, condemned the rush to cut taxes among Tory leadership candidates, calling it an “arms race of fantasy economics”.