Brexit Minister James Cleverly has pulled out of the Tory leadership race, claiming his fellow MPs were not comfortable with the idea of picking a “relatively new” colleague.
The MP for Braintree, who was first elected in 2015, concluded that he was “highly unlikely” to reach the final two candidates chosen by MPs to be put to a final vote of Tory members.
His withdrawal leaves 12 runners still in the contest to replace Theresa May, who will quit as Tory leader on Friday.
Mr Cleverly said: “I felt that we needed to deliver Brexit and then quickly move the conversation on to other important issues that face the country.
“I had hoped that the Conservative parliamentary party would support me to be the face and voice of that conversation.
“To do this I asked them to make a leap of faith, skip a generation and vote for a relatively new MP.
“It is clear that, despite much support, particularly from our party’s grassroots, MPs weren’t comfortable with such a move and it has become clear that it is highly unlikely that I would progress to be one of the final two candidates.”
Elsewhere in the contest:
– Michael Gove’s profile has been boosted by an invitation to meet US President Donald Trump;
– Boris Johnson’s former campaign manager Ben Wallace “hasn’t decided yet” whether to back him again in his latest Conservative Party leadership bid;
– Ardent Brexiteer Liam Fox announced he is backing Jeremy Hunt, who recently described a no-deal Brexit as “political suicide”;
– The Tory backbench 1922 Committee is expected to decide how to handle the contest given the crowded field;
– Mr Johnson, Sajid Javid, Kit Malthouse and Andrea Leadsom will take part in a private hustings for Tory MPs in the centre-right One Nation group.
Security Minister Mr Wallace ran Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign in 2016 and threatened to go “Game Of Thrones” on Mr Gove after he scuppered his candidate’s chances, opening the door for Mrs May’s coronation.
Mr Wallace would only say that he had not yet decided whether to back Mr Johnson when asked directly on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He said: “I haven’t made a decision yet.
“The one thing I have learned from being inside a campaign is we’ve got another 10 days – your listeners will be dead bored.
“What we do need to do is make sure this race is about getting the right person to lead the country, but I’m not going to bang on about it.”
Meanwhile, International Trade Secretary Mr Fox announced he is backing Mr Hunt because he wants to steer away from a no-deal Brexit.
Speaking on the Today programme, Mr Fox accepted that the UK having different regulatory standards from the EU would mean border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which he said was why a Brexit deal was his preferred option.
Although he said the UK had to be “willing to walk away”, he warned that a no-deal Brexit could be used by independence campaigners in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
He said: “I think the prospect of a no-deal might well be used by those who seek to break up the UK, to use that as a weapon in that particular battle, both I think in Northern Ireland and potentially in Scotland.”
Mr Fox said he was backing Mr Hunt due to his ability to make deals.
He said: “In this contest I’ll be backing my friend Jeremy Hunt, who is an impressive Foreign Secretary, who is an entrepreneur by background where deal-making is part of his DNA.
“I think he understands we have to send a message to Europe that we will leave if we cannot get an appropriate deal but we will try to get a deal.”
Mr Fox also insisted that the NHS and food standards will be protected in any post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
He said: “Trade agreements generally have provisions about the regulation of public services … provisions to ensure governments retain control of public regulation, including the NHS.”
On issues such as chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef, he added: “We have made very clear that, without exception, imports into the UK must meet the UK’s stringent food standards and that is not going to change.”