Sarah Atherton first Welsh backer of Boris Johnson in Tory leadership campaign
Wrexham MP Sarah Atherton has become the first Welsh Conservative MP to back Boris Johnson in next week’s Tory Leadership election.
Johnson is reported to be struggling to secure the 100 backers to make it on to the ballot for the first round of voting by MPs on Monday afternoon.
Ms Atherton switched from supporting Penny Mordaunt to Liz Truss during the the Tories protracted leadership tussle over the summer.
Rishi Sunak formally entered the Tory leadership contest this morning, promising he would lead with “integrity, professionalism and accountability” in an apparent attempt to contrast himself with his predecessors as his backers warned a Boris Johnson comeback would be a “guaranteed disaster”.
Mr Johnson’s supporters have downplayed the fact he is lagging behind his former chancellor in public support from MPs, saying he is “clearly” running, although he has not officially declared this.
Rishi Sunak passed the 100 threshold on Saturday evening and currently has the support of 124 MPs including the former Welsh Secretary Simon Hart, Craig Williams, Fay Jones, David TC Davies, Jamie Wallis, and Alun Cairns.
Mr Sunak gained three more valuable backers today in new Home Secretary Grant Shapps, Work and Pensions Secretary Chloe Smith and Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, an influential figure on the Tory right as the former head of backbench Brexiteers.
Mr Shapps, who also threw his weight behind Mr Sunak in the last leadership contest against Liz Truss, tweeted that the ex-chancellor would “provide stability and proven economic competence in these challenging times”.
Mr Baker was scathing in his assessment of what a comeback by Mr Johnson, who is mulling a bid to return to the top job just months after being forced out by his own MPs, would mean.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “Boris would be a guaranteed disaster.
“There’s going to be a vote before the House of Commons on this issue of privileges, whether he will deliberately misled the house.
“In that vote it’s guaranteed there’ll be a large number of Conservatives who will refuse, as they see it, to lay down their integrity to save him, and at that moment his premiership will collapse.”
Mr Johnson is to face an inquiry into whether he lied to the Commons over the partygate scandal, for which he was fined by police.
If found guilty by the Commons Privileges Committee, he could face recall proceedings that would leave him battling for his seat in the Commons if he receives a suspension of 10 days or more.
“I’m not willing to lay down my integrity for Boris Johnson,” Mr Baker said.
He added that “this isn’t the time for Boris and his style”, noting that Mr Johnson does not have the capacity to comply with “tedious rules”.
Conservative former cabinet minister Dominic Raab also warned that the partygate probe would overshadow a Mr Johnson premiership.
He told BBC One’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme: “In a matter of days, not weeks, he’s going to see televised witness testimony, including his own, which is going to take him right back into that spiral.”
But Mr Johnson won the support of Nadhim Zahawi, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who said the ex-Prime Minister “got the big calls right” and argued “Britain needs him back”.
He tweeted: “When I was Chancellor, I saw a preview of what Boris 2.0 would look like. He was contrite and honest about his mistakes. He’d learned from those mistakes how he could run No 10 and the country better.”
Mr Zahawi, who joined other Cabinet ministers including Ben Wallace, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Jacob Rees-Mogg in backing their former boss, urged him to resign as prime minister in July.
Mr Johnson currently has the support of 57 MPs.
Mr Rees-Mogg, the Business Secretary, confirmed Mr Johnson intends to run, telling Kuenssberg: “I have been speaking to Boris Johnson, and clearly he’s going to stand, there’s a great deal of support for him.”
Fellow Johnson ally Sir James Duddridge gave a similar indication and suggested the former prime minister will “cooperate fully” with the partygate probe.
The Tory MP tweeted: “Boris on good form at the 8am meeting with MPs. In a first for Boris he was rather smartly dressed!
“He made it very clear the Privileges Committee must and will be allowed to get on with their process. He will cooperate fully.”
Penny Mordaunt, the first candidate to declare, insisted she is “in this to win it” despite being far behind her potential rivals on public endorsements.
She has just 21 to Mr Johnson’s 57 and Mr Sunak’s 124.
Ms Mordaunt said she was a “halfway house” between Ms Truss and Mr Sunak in the last contest and that she is “best-placed to unite our party”.
“I’m in this to win it. I think it’s important for our party, we have a contest. I am very confident about our numbers,” she told Kuenssberg.
But the leadership hopeful refused to give any details of her tax and spend policy, declining to explicitly commit to raising benefits in line with inflation, the pensions triple lock, 3% defence spending and no cuts to the health service.
“I’m not going to be drawn into the detail,” she repeatedly said.
She said reports that she offered to back Mr Johnson in return for a job from him were “completely false” and refused to say which of her two rivals she would back.
It came after Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak were said to be locked in talks late into Saturday evening amid speculation over whether the pair could agree on a joint ticket.
Mr Johnson returned to the UK on Saturday to plot a second run for the top job, in a move that has divided opinion among Conservative MPs including his former allies.
Tory MPs will vote on Monday, and two candidates will be put forward to the party 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 members with whom he remains popular.
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