Matt Hancock has signalled he could back Boris Johnson’s bid to lead the Tory party, as the race hots up to be the runaway favourite’s top pick for the Treasury.
After the health secretary pulled out of the Conservative leadership race on Friday, Sajid Javid, the home secretary, was also being urged by his friends to quit the contest and back Mr Johnson with a view to trying to move into 11 Downing Street.
Mr Johnson’s team said no jobs were being offered, but one ally confirmed that both Mr Hancock or Mr Javid might be good candidates for chancellor alongside the likes of Liz Truss, Treasury chief secretary and an early backer of Mr Johnson’s campaign.
Mr Hancock, a 40-year-old former Bank of England economist and a protégé of former chancellor George Osborne, withdrew from the race after finishing sixth with 20 votes in the first round of voting by MPs on Thursday.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, which is now edited by Mr Osborne, Mr Hancock was asked whether he could back Mr Johnson, whom he had criticised for saying “fuck business”. Mr Hancock, once chief-of-staff to Mr Osborne, replied: “I’m ruling nothing in or out.”
Mr Osborne’s newspaper has abruptly switched from being critical of Mr Johnson to becoming a cheerleader for the former foreign secretary — who already has the support of 114 MPs — suggesting the varied factions of the Conservative tribe are coming back together.
“Mr Johnson looks to be a near-certain winner, thanks to a disciplined campaign that is seeking to reach out across his divided party,” the paper’s editorial said. “Who knows, perhaps Mr Hancock will now sign up?”
The prospect of a new chancellor closely allied to Mr Osborne will concern those like Ms Truss who have backed Mr Johnson from the start, and will be viewed nervously by Mr Javid, a former banker who has long coveted the job of chancellor.
Mr Javid’s team confirmed that the idea of abandoning his campaign and backing Mr Johnson had been discussed, but that the home secretary — who polled 23 votes on Thursday — insisted vehemently he would be fighting on.
One Tory MP who voted for Mr Javid in the first round admitted: “People have looked at Saj and decided they can’t see him as prime minister.”
The first test for the six remaining candidates will be hustings in London on Saturday in front of the National Conservative Convention of senior Tory activists.
They will then join a Channel 4 debate on Sunday, although Mr Johnson said he would not be taking part. Instead he will attend a BBC debate next Tuesday, by which point fewer candidates will remain in the race.
Next week Tory MPs will vote again to slim down the field. Any contender who fails to win the backing of 33 MPs will also be eliminated. By next Thursday, a shortlist of two will be compiled; the final choice will be made by 160,000 party members in July.
Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary, is urging Tory Eurosceptic MPs to switch their support to him to ensure that “two proper Brexiteers” reach the final shortlist. Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who finished second in this week’s vote, and Rory Stewart, international development secretary, are the other contenders.
Meanwhile Mr Johnson appeared to leave open the possibility that he would not take Britain out of the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, telling the BBC it would be wrong “at this stage” to “run up the white flag and delay yet again”.
His team also confirmed that Mr Johnson was not committed to blocking a third runway at Heathrow — a project he has long opposed — but had doubts about whether it would comply with legal limits on noise and air quality.