Senior Conservatives are warning against an extended leadership contest that would see Theresa May remain as caretaker prime minister until late summer.
The prime minister promised the backbench 1922 Committee on Thursday that she would set out a timetable for her departure, once MPs had been given a vote on the withdrawal agreement bill in early June.
With a wide field of candidates including several cabinet members expected to enter the race, MPs believe it could take several rounds of twice-weekly votes in parliament to whittle them down to the pair that must be presented to members. They expect members could then be given a month or more to make up their minds, with Tory party HQ reportedly identifying venues for grassroots hustings events.
“It is utterly outrageous for the party to let a leadership contest go beyond July. It’s unforgivable,” said a campaign source for one contender. “Her successor needs to put a cabinet together, draw up a new negotiating position. To say to them: ‘do that in October’ is unforgivable.”
In the cabinet alone, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and Andrea Leadsom are widely expected to stand, with several having already assembled leadership teams. International development secretary Rory Stewart has already declared his interest in May’s job.
Ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson put forward his candidacy on Thursday, while conceding that no vacancy was yet available; and Dominic Raab is backed by his “Ready for Raab” campaign.
Some members of the 1922 Committee were keen to see the prime minister step down immediately, but decided to give her one more chance to put her Brexit deal before parliament next month. That is a high-risk strategy, because if the bill falls at its second reading, it cannot be introduced again without parliament being prorogued. May’s successor would then have to kick off a new parliamentary session, and pass a new Queen’s speech in the House of Commons.
Henry Newman, a former adviser to Michael Gove and a director at the Open Europe thinktank, said: “I’m concerned there’s not a serious strategy to command a majority, and my feeling is that it’s irresponsible to have the second reading without having that majority.”
David Cameron intended the contest for his successor to take place during the summer of 2016, after he announced his intention to resign after the EU referendum result. But after Gove’s appearance in that race knocked out Johnson, and Leadsom stepped aside after controversial comments about motherhood making her a better leader, grassroots members were never given a vote.
Johnson is the current frontrunner among members, according to multiple polls.