Boris Johnson would not call a general election immediately if he won the Conservative party leadership election and took over as prime minister, it is understood.
Johnson is one of several Tories about to formally launch their bids to replace David Cameron as nominations open on Wednesday, with his main rivals set to include the home secretary, Theresa May, and a joint ticket of Stephen Crabb, the pensions secretary, backed by Sajid Javid, the business secretary.
A source in Johnson’s team said the former London mayor, who has been busy seeking the support of high-profile women in the cabinet, believed the result of last week’s referendum was sufficient for him to start negotiating an exit from the EU without seeking a new mandate.
Johnson’s move, which could tempt some MPs into backing him in the hope they would thus avoid risking their jobs before 2020, came as the first hopefuls began to emerge.
Crabb confirmed his intention to stand in a Telegraph article that followed an email to fellow Tory MPs.
Javid, answering questions after a ministerial press conference, confirmed he would be supporting Crabb. It was widely reported that the pair would stand on a joint ticket, with Javid as a prospective chancellor, though this has yet to be confirmed.
Crabb said in the Telegraph article: “Sajid Javid knows that we have the potential to secure a deal which protects UK business and workers, and provides access to Europe’s single market.”
The pair, who both come from poorer backgrounds, are expected to frame their joint ticket as a way for the party to reconnect with voters in disadvantaged areas, including traditional Labour supporters now tempted by Ukip.
The most concerted early efforts to sign up MPs to their cause were by Johnson and his perceived main rival, May.
MPs say Elizabeth Truss, the environment secretary, will back Johnson in the coming days, and that he has reached out to Amber Rudd, the energy secretary. It would be seen as a coup if Johnson, figurehead of the leave campaign, secured the backing of ministers who both campaigned heavily for the remain camp before the EU referendum.
Johnson wants to show he can attract the support of remain campaigners and the liberal wing of the party, with early support from the skills minister, Nick Boles. But a number of female MPs, including those passionate about the party’s modernising agenda, have said they plan to back May’s campaign.
One politician described May, who supported the remain campaign, as someone with the “work ethic of Thatcher” and said she was one of the few people with enough authority to carry the country into Brexit negotiations. Another said they never thought they would be taking her side, but were desperate to block a “Johnson coronation”.
Few Tory MPs have come out publicly for anyone so far. Several cabinet ministers are insisting they have still to make up their mind, with some saying they will seek meetings with candidates before deciding.
It comes as the Conservatives extended the timetable for the leadership contest by a week, with a new leader now due to be in place for 9 September, to give more time for party members to have their say.
Nominations close at midday on Thursday, with candidates needing the support of only two other Tory MPs to join the race. The list will be whittled down to a final pair in a series of twice-weekly votes among MPs, with party members then voting on this final two.
Rumours swirling around Westminster suggest Andrea Leadsom, the energy minister who campaigned to leave the EU, could be a key figure who might herself run, but is also being courted by various candidates including May.
One list appeared to suggest the home secretary had the edge in the number of MPs backing her, followed by Johnson, but also revealed support for both Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, and Crabb.
A source said Morgan had not yet made a final decision over whether to stand, but that if she did she would be a “one nation” candidate who would make the case for young people who have been hit by the EU referendum result and the financial crisis.
The former defence secretary Liam Fox has already confirmed his candidature, while Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, is also canvassing support. Hunt, who was involved in a long-running contract dispute with junior doctors that triggered eight strikes, said he wanted the UK to secure continued access to the European single market. Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain if he would pit himself against potential rivals such as Johnson and May, he said: “I am seriously considering it.”
Hunt’s declaration of a possible run came after the chancellor, George Osborne, ruled himself out, saying it was clear that he could not provide the unity the party needed. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, Osborne said “the country is going to be poorer” in the wake of last week’s referendum vote to leave the EU. “We need a plan as a country to get ourselves out of this, while respecting the decision of the British people,” he said.
Osborne warned of the economic risks of leaving the EU and said he would do everything he could to steer the country through it, but said: “It was not the responsibility of those who wanted to remain in the EU to explain what plan we would follow if we voted to quit the EU.”