Rishi Sunak and the Tory high command are nervously waiting to see if more Boris Johnson allies quit as MPs – amid fears that the feud is set to plunge the party into civil war.
Johnson supporters claim two more MPs are on “resignation watch” after Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams joined the former prime minister in quitting with immediate effect and triggering by-elections.
But some government loyalists think support for the rebellion is stalling. Claims by Johnson’s camp that up to six more MPs were poised to quit have failed to materialise so far.
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Some of Mr Johnson’s closest allies – led by the newly knighted Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg – have publicly declared they are not quitting, despite offering vocal support for the former PM.
Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Sir Jacob said: “I am not, unlike some of my fellow Boris admirers, resigning my Commons seat. I will fight my North East Somerset seat at the next election and campaign for a Conservative victory nationally.”
He also claimed Mr Johnson’s resignation – and his suggestion that he might fight another seat at the next election – “puts him in pole position to return as Conservative leader if a vacancy should arise”.
In his angry resignation statement on Friday evening, Mr Johnson said: “It is very sad to be leaving parliament – at least for now.”
Issuing a direct threat to Mr Sunak, Sir Jacob added: “I would most strongly warn Conservative Party managers against any attempt to block Boris if he seeks the party nomination in another seat.
“Any attempt to do so would shatter our fragile party unity and plunge the Conservatives into civil war.”
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Leading Brexit hardliner Lord Frost, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, also predicted a Johnson comeback – declaring: “True, he is leaving parliament, but only, as he himself says, ‘for now’.”
But party grandees opposed to a comeback by Mr Johnson – led by former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine – urged the party leadership to block a return to the Commons by the former PM.
“To me it is inconceivable that in these circumstances he could stand as a Conservative member of parliament again,” Lord Heseltine wrote in The Observer.
“It is up to Conservative central office to affirm an official Conservative candidate. No doubt he will now go out into the world and make huge sums of money, writing history as he thinks it was conducted. But it will have little to do with the reality that he has left behind.”
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, called for a general election following the trio of high-profile resignations from the Commons, claiming Mr Sunak had lost control of his government.
“Rishi Sunak must finally find a backbone, call an election, and let the public have their say on 13 years of Tory failure,” Sir Keir wrote in the Sunday Mirror.
“This farce must stop. People have had enough.”