Donald Trump has said he believes both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt would do a “very good job” as the next leader of the Conservative Party.
The US president name-checked three Tory hopefuls as he stood alongside the outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May at a press conference following talks at Downing Street.
Mr Trump has had a phone call with Mr Johnson during his state visit this week, and is set to hold talks with Michael Gove.
Finishing the press conference on a jovial note, he jokingly asked Mr Hunt, who was sitting in the front row, whether he thought Mr Gove would do a good job as leader.
Mr Trump told reporters: “I know Boris. I like him. I have liked him for a long time. I think he would do a very good job. I know Jeremy, I think he would do a very good job.
“I don’t know Michael – would he do a good job, Jeremy?”
Downing Street said Mr Trump had been “courteous” and let Mrs May know he was holding talks with the leadership rivals.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Once the PM said she was stepping down, it was inevitable the focus would fall on who her successor will be.”
Details emerged earlier on Tuesday that Mr Trump had called Mr Johnson and offered a one-to-one meeting, but the former foreign secretary is due to attend a leadership hustings on Tuesday night.
The Press Association understands the two men had a “friendly and productive” 20-minute call.
A source said: “Boris thanked him but declined the invitation as he has to focus on the hustings event that was happening at the same time, which the president understood.
“He said he looked forward to catching up at a later date.”
Meanwhile, a source close to the Environment Secretary told the Press Association: “Mr Gove was asked last night by Mr Trump’s team if he would be able to meet the president today. He said yes.
“Nothing has been fixed yet.”
While Mr Trump said he did not know Mr Gove, the two men have previously met.
Mr Gove interviewed the then president-elect at Trump Tower for a piece which was published in The Times in January 2017.
Speaking after the interview, Mr Gove said he felt Mr Trump’s “aggressive” public persona was at odds with his warmer private side.
Mr Trump’s efforts to engage with the Tory leadership contenders is a sign that the White House is already preparing for Mrs May’s departure from Number 10.
Ahead of the trip, Mr Trump had indicated he might also meet Nigel Farage.
Sources close to the Brexit Party leader refused to be drawn on whether he would meet the president.
As Mr Trump was communicating with the Tory leadership rivals, he also urged outgoing Mrs May to “stick around” and conclude a trade deal.
But Mrs May, asked by a reporter during Tuesday’s press conference, whether she would consider Mr Trump’s suggestion, smiled and said: “No, I’m a woman of my word.”