Rishi Sunak in lead but Boris Johnson allies claim growing numbers

As Boris Johnson returns to the UK and Rishi Sunak secures the backing of 100 MPs, ITV News Political Correspondent Tom Sheldrick has the latest on the race to No 10

Boris Johnson has returned to the UK amid speculation he could bid to become prime minister again - dividing opinion among Conservative MPs, including his former allies.

Mr Johnson arrived at Gatwick Airport on Saturday morning with his family after breaking off a holiday in the Dominican Republic following Liz Truss’s forced resignation on Thursday.

Sky News photographed the ex-prime minister and his wife Carrie Johnson in economy on an overnight British Airways flight back from the Caribbean with their children and said the MP received “one or two boos” as he boarded.

Despite an unsubstantiated claim by a leading Johnson supporter on Saturday that he had amassed 100 backers - many of them have not publicly declared that support.

ITV News political editor Robert Peston writes that it is Rishi Sunak who has the strongest momentum in the MPs contest.

The former chancellor is 60 nominations away from having 179 backers, or the support of more than half of MPs.

Mr Johnson's arrival back in the UK attracted widespread attention on Saturday.

His flight was being tracked by around 7,000 users of the FlightRadar24 website as it landed 47 minutes behind schedule.

Mr Johnson’s allies said he is “up for it” but he is likely to be opposed in the leadership race by Mr Sunak, whose resignation was key in Mr Johnson’s departure from Downing Street this summer, as well as Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt.

And, while he is yet to formally declare he will run, Mr Johnson’s potential reinstatement has divided opinion even among his allies in the parliamentary party.

Moments after Mr Johnson landed, former home secretary Priti Patel said she would be backing him.

But his campaign suffered a blow as former close allies Steve Barclay and Lord Frost urged colleagues to back Mr Sunak.

British Airways flight carrying former Prime Minister Boris Johnson arriving at Gatwick Airport in London Credit: Flightradar24.com

Former leadership rival Kemi Badenoch also emerged as a Sunak backer, writing in the Sunday Times that the party didn't need "nostalgia" as she hailed his predictions about rising inflation and interest rates in his campaign opposite Ms Truss.

During a time of uncertainty, the country needs the "disciplined approach Rishi brings to government," she wrote in the column published Saturday night.

Mr Johnson's former deputy prime minister and foreign secretary Dominic Raab also warned against his return to the highest office.

On Saturday morning, Mr Raab said “we cannot go backwards” and pointed out Mr Johnson faces a probe into his actions over partygate.

Dominic Raab speaks to ITV News on the prospect of a Rishi Sunak leadership bid

Mr Raab told ITV News he was backing Mr Sunak: "It's a different contest now, of course. I think many of the things that Rishi was talking about particularly on the economic side, I think have been borne out."

Mr Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme why he wasn't backing his former leader: “I stood by Boris, I’ve got a lot of respect for him.

"I think he can make a return to frontline politics and I like him personally."

Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak Credit: Jacob King/PA

He added: “The challenge is this Committee on Privileges and Standards is entering a new phase, there’s going to be oral testimony from people from Number 10.

"He’s going to have to give oral testimony and I just can’t see in practice how the new prime minister, in office latest next Friday, could give the country the attention, the focus that it needs and at the same time be giving testimony and be answering all of those questions. So I don’t say it with any relish. I’m sad about that situation.

“We cannot go backwards. We cannot have another episode of the Groundhog Day, of the soap opera of partygate. We must get the country and the government moving forward.”

But Johnson ally Andrew Stephenson told the Today programme he believed Mr Johnson still had support among the party’s membership, some of whom he claimed had wanted the ex-PM on the ballot for the last contest.

The Tory MP and minister said: “There was a huge amount of support from party members still for Boris and they were quite upset that parliamentarians had got rid of him.”

What does the public think of the leadership race? ITV News reporter Sejal Karia hears views on the potential contenders

When asked what had changed, Mr Stephenson said: “Well, clearly what’s changed is some of my colleagues who said they had no faith in him and urged him to resign previously, have now gone on record urging him to put his name forward.

“There are many more waiting for him to come back and to make a decision on whether he is going to stand but I have heard lots of MPs who now feel that they were rash to judge him before and somewhat rash to encourage him to resign then.”

Mr Johnson has so far won the support of Cabinet ministers including Ben Wallace, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Simon Clarke, Chris Heaton-Harris, Alok Sharma and Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

Appearing on GB News, the ex-PM’s father Stanley Johnson has predicted that his son will put his name forward and beat Mr Sunak in a head-to-head contest.

But Mr Johnson was lagging behind in nominations, as was Ms Mordaunt, who became the first to confirm her candidacy.

Mr Sunak, who came second against Ms Truss in the last race six weeks ago, has the most public declarations, according to tallies, far ahead of Mr Johnson’s, while Ms Mordaunt struggles.

The Leader of the House, who finished third in the last leadership election, said she had been encouraged by the support she had received from fellow Conservative MPs and wanted to unite the party.

She also assured Jeremy Hunt he could stay on as Chancellor if she won.

Ms Mordaunt released a campaign video featuring her pulling pints and playing pool on Saturday, as she positioned herself as the unity candidate.She tweeted: "Our party needs unity. "I am the only candidate who can truly bring the party back together and build a winning team."

Setting out her plan to “unite the party and the country” in The Express, she warned the Tories have “let ourselves become distracted by internal disputes”.

Ms Mordaunt used her pitch to stress the need to “make Brexit work”, “focus on the potential of all our citizens” and “defend our Union and its territorial integrity”, pledging her support for reforming the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol.

She insisted she is not seeking the top job for an “easy ride”, and vowed to build a government which “draws from all our best talent”.

“As prime minister, I will create that team of Conservatives, we will get real, and we will get to work,” she added.

Penny Mordaunt became the first candidate to throw her hat into the ring in the race to succeed Liz Truss as prime minister Credit: PA

There is speculation among backers of the old Downing Street neighbours that Mr Sunak and Ms Mordaunt could yet strike a joint-ticket deal to stand together, but this would need them both to bury a lot of rancour.

Tory MPs will vote on Monday, and two candidates will be put forward to the Tory membership unless one pulls out, with a result being announced on Friday.

Candidates have until 2pm on Monday to secure the 100 nominations, limiting the ballot to a maximum of three candidates.

Supporters of Mr Johnson believe that if he can make it to the last two, he will win in the final online ballot of party activists with whom he remains hugely popular.

Some MPs have warned they would resign the Tory whip and sit in the Commons as independents if Mr Johnson returns to Downing Street.

Analysts at Berenberg Bank said there were greater market risks from a Johnson government, with the FT reporting the bank told its clients: “Given that a majority of Conservative MPs probably do not want Johnson as their leader, the prospects of mass resignations and a further descent into chaos would loom large.”

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