Senior Conservatives are warning against an prolonged leadership contest that would mean Theresa May remaining as caretaker prime minister until late summer.
The prime minister promised the backbench 1922 Committee on Thursday that she would set out a timetable for her departure once MPs had been given a vote on the withdrawal agreement bill in early June.
A short contest is thought to favour the frontrunner among members, Boris Johnson. The former foreign secretary put forward his candidacy on Thursday, while conceding that no vacancy was yet available.
In a poll in the Times of more than 850 Tory members, 39% named him their favoured choice to take over from May. Dominic Raab, backed by his Ready for Raab campaign, was second with 13%.
But with a wide field of other candidates including several cabinet members expected to enter the race, MPs believe it could take several rounds of twice-weekly votes to whittle them down to the pair that must be presented to members. They expect members could then be given a month or more to make up their minds, with Tory party HQ reportedly identifying venues for grassroots hustings events.
“It is utterly outrageous for the party to let a leadership contest go beyond July. It’s unforgivable,” said a campaign source for one contender. “Her successor needs to put a cabinet together, draw up a new negotiating position. To say to them: ‘do that in October’ is unforgivable.”
In the cabinet alone, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Andrea Leadsom are widely expected to stand, with several having already assembled leadership teams. International development secretary Rory Stewart has already declared his interest in May’s job.
One former Conservative cabinet minister warned that it was a “terrible idea”, for the contest to stretch on through the summer; while a member of the 1922 Committee insisted that it should be completed before the recess, which is expected to begin in late July.
However, some Tories believe a longer contest would allow lesser-known candidates to come to the fore. Mid-Norfolk MP and former chair of May’s policy board George Freeman said: “We are choosing a party leader who will take over as prime minister. It is vital for public trust that we have a real contest and open debate around the country – not just with ourselves – and not a quick coronation or snap kneejerk election in the immediate aftermath of the [European elections].”
Some members of the 1922 Committee wanted the prime minister to step down immediately but decided to give her one more chance to put her Brexit deal before parliament next month. That is a high-risk strategy, because if the bill falls at its second reading, it cannot be introduced again without the parliamentary session being prorogued (discontinued). May’s successor would then have to kick off a new parliamentary session, and pass a new Queen’s speech in the House of Commons.
Henry Newman, a former adviser to Gove and a director at the Open Europe thinktank, said: “I’m concerned there’s not a serious strategy to command a majority and my feeling is that it’s irresponsible to have the second reading without having that majority.”
David Cameron intended the contest for his successor to take place during the summer of 2016, he announced his intention to resign following the EU referendum result. But after Gove’s appearance in that race knocked out Johnson, and Leadsom stepped aside because of controversial comments about motherhood making her a better leader, grassroots members were never given a vote.