‘Well, that was unexpected’: how Johnson wrongfooted his leadership backers

Several MPs supporting ex-PM’s return were caught out in awkward ways by news he would not run

To borrow a line from Eric Morecambe – as one wag pointed out to Nadhim Zahawi on Twitter – it was a case of “backing all the right candidates, just not necessarily in the right order”.

Among a field of very late converts to the charms of Rishi Sunak, Zahawi was one of those caught out in the most awkward of ways by Boris Johnson’s abrupt announcement that he was not entering the Tory leadership race.

Having penned an article for the Daily Telegraph in which the former chancellor urged readers to “get ready for Boris 2.0”, Zahawi appears to have had no advance warning that Johnson was to announce his non-contention around the time the article was published online at 9pm.

With the piece pulled, Zahawi tweeted less than half an hour later: “A day is a long time in politics … Given today’s news, it’s clear that we should turn to @RishiSunak to become our next Prime Minister.”

Other MPs seemingly caught out included James Duddridge, who had been telling the media that Johnson was “coming back and is up for it”. The Essex backbencher reacted to Johnson’s announcement by tweeting: “Well that was unexpected. Off to bed!”, before announcing on Monday morning he was backing Sunak.

One of the most glaring pivots of position was that of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was criticised by colleagues for sending out a tweet three days ago containing the hashtag #BORISorBUST.

After Sunak’s victory was confirmed on Monday, Rees-Mogg said that now was the time for party unity, as he congratulated the former chancellor and expressed support for his leadership.

Another new convert on Monday to Sunak was Iain Duncan Smith, who had blamed him in July for having fuelled inflation during his time as Chancellor, when the former Tory leader said that Sunak had ‘signed off on the extra money that was printed’.

Elsewhere, those who have promptly switched to Sunak – regarded by many Johnson supporters as a traitor who knifed their man in the back – include the levelling up secretary, Simon Clarke, and the foreign secretary, James Cleverly.

As recently as 2pm on Saturday, Cleverly had publicly backed the former prime minister, saying: “I know Boris has learned lessons from his time in No 10 and will ensure the focus is on the needs of the country from day one.”

Striking changes of direction were also in evidence on other MPs’ social media accounts. Chris Heaton Harris said on Twitter on Monday that he was backing Sunak and called for colleagues to put aside political differences, a tweet which was preceded on Friday by another in which he expressed support for Boris Johnson, saying: “We need a leader with a proven track record of delivery.”

Priti Patel, who was home secretary in Johnson’s cabinet and had been among those backing him when word came through that he was returning from his holiday in the Dominican Republic, said on Monday that Conservatives “must put political differences aside” to give Sunak the best chance of succeeding.

“Rishi is experienced, competent and will make a great PM,” David Morris said on Twitter, having urged Johnson on Friday to return to the UK to “unite the party”.

• This article was amended on 25 October 2022 to reinstate David Morris’s first name, which was lost during the editing process.


Ben Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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