Conservative MPs will on Monday set out a tight timetable for the party’s leadership contest, with a view to whittling down an expanding list of candidates to a shortlist of two by next Wednesday.
Eleven candidates have formally declared their intention to stand to be the next UK prime minister, after foreign secretary Liz Truss and little-known Foreign Office minister Rehman Chishti launched bids.
Former chancellor Rishi Sunak has more than 30 Tory MPs backing him and is the bookmakers’ favourite, while other candidates are lining up to criticise him for raising taxes during his time at the Treasury.
Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer on Monday denounced the “fantasy economics” that he claims has marked the Tory contest so far, with candidates vying with each other to promise the most ambitious tax cuts.
There have also been claims from Nadhim Zahawi, who was appointed chancellor last week, that he had been the victim of “smears” about his financial affairs.
To truncate what could quickly become a divisive and bitter contest, a newly elected executive of the Tory party’s 1922 committee of backbenchers, which runs the selection of Conservative leaders, will meet on Monday to finalise the rules and timetable.
One senior MP close to the committee said it was “likely” that MPs would demand that candidates must secure the support of at least 10 per cent of the parliamentary party to get on to the ballot paper, which would equate to 36 MPs.
Another senior MP suggested that the threshold might be 20 MPs. Even that bar is likely to immediately knock out lesser-known candidates who have fewer supporters.
The aim would be to cut the number of candidates to perhaps three or four by the end of this week in a series of “knockout” votes. A final shortlist of two would then be chosen by MPs before the House of Commons starts its summer break on July 21.
Boris Johnson will remain as caretaker prime minister until Conservative party members elect a new leader from the shortlist. The aim is to complete the process before MPs return to Westminster on September 5.
As campaigning begins in earnest, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has backed Truss, saying she had opposed Sunak increasing National Insurance rates — a policy intended to fund the NHS and social care improvements.
Meanwhile, former Treasury minister Robert Jenrick has endorsed Sunak and defended the former chancellor for holding on to his US green card, or permanent residency, while being an MP.
“I actually think it’s quite refreshing that we might have a prime minister who’s lived and worked around the world [and] is extremely knowledgeable about finance and technology,” he told the BBC.
Meanwhile, Zahawi told Sky News that he was “clearly being smeared” by allegations that his financial affairs were being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, the National Crime Agency and HM Revenue & Customs.
“I’m not aware of this,” he said. “I’ve always declared my taxes — I’ve paid my taxes in the UK.”