Tory leadership contest formally begins with Gove under pressure

The battle for Number 10 has officially begun, with candidates to be the next prime minister launching their campaigns.

Michael Gove will insist he is “ready to be prime minister” as he attempts to move on from the furore over his confession of cocaine use 20 years ago.

Both Mr Gove and Jeremy Hunt will claim they are “serious” political figures, comments aimed at setting themselves in contrast to leadership front-runner Boris Johnson.

As the nominations process opened, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was the first candidate to launch his campaign, presenting himself as offering a fresh start.

He claimed to have a “credible plan” to deliver Brexit by October 31, warning that the “brutal truth” is that a no-deal Brexit would not get through the House of Commons.

In a jibe aimed at Dominic Raab and Esther McVey, who have refused to rule out suspending Parliament in order to get a no-deal Brexit through, Mr Hancock said “that goes against everything that those men who waded on to those beaches fought and died for, and I will not have it”.

Tory leadership race
Tory leadership race

Former Brexit secretary Mr Raab used his launch event to say he was offering “a change of vision and a generational change in leadership”.

He said: “We have got to keep our promises on Brexit, as a matter of trust in our democracy and, frankly, now as a matter of the survival of our party.”

Ms McVey confirmed that she had got the eight MP backers required to enter the race, tweeting “it’s official”.

Nomination papers are in.It’s official.#ItsOfficial

— Esther McVey (@EstherMcVey1) June 10, 2019

Mr Gove was battling to stay in the Tory leadership contest after his admission of cocaine use led to calls to withdraw.

He also suffered a blow as Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd declared her support for his rival Mr Hunt.

Former foreign secretary Mr Johnson is the bookmakers’ favourite to replace Theresa May and the main focus at Westminster is on who will challenge him when the candidates are reduced to a final two next week.

Mr Hunt and Mr Gove, the MPs seen as his most likely competitors, both launch their campaigns with Mr Johnson fixed in their sights.

Mr Gove, whose campaign plans have been derailed by the cocaine furore, will attempt to persuade Tory MPs that he can be the “serious leader” the country needs.

The Cabinet minister, who endured a bruising interview on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show where he was repeatedly questioned about his cocaine use 20 years ago, will attempt to portray his willingness to face scrutiny as a strength.

Critics of Mr Johnson have highlighted his lack of media appearances since Mrs May announced her decision to quit.

At his launch event, Mr Gove will say: “I have led from the front, undaunted by criticism, and resolute in the need to solve complex issues because that is what our country needs.”

In a message to Tory MPs, he will add: “We need a leader who is ready to lead from day one.

“A leader ready to be prime minister from day one.

“A leader ready to face the scrutiny of the studio lights.”

Boris Johnson accusations
Boris Johnson accusations

Former Tory chairwoman Baroness Warsi said it was “completely inappropriate” for him to remain in the contest to be the next prime minister following his admission of cocaine use while a journalist in the late 1990s.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mrs May “continues to have full confidence in Michael Gove and the job which he is doing” as Environment Secretary.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson used his Daily Telegraph column to signal a plan to slash the higher rate of income tax for people earning more than £50,000.

“We should be raising thresholds of income tax – so that we help the huge numbers that have been captured in the higher rate by fiscal drag,” he said.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid picked up further support for his campaign, with ministers Caroline Nokes and Victoria Atkins backing him.