Isabel Hardman

Tory party braced for deep divisions during leadership contest

Tory party braced for deep divisions during leadership contest
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The Tory party is waking up this morning reeling from one of its most dramatic days since, well, last week, when the Prime Minister announced he was resigning. MPs from across the party are amazed at what they largely see as not just an act of treachery from Michael Gove but also a breach of how politicians generally behave towards their friends and their party, which is generally with loyalty. Many of them wonder how on earth the Justice Secretary can really reunite the Conservative party at the end of a bitter referendum battle when he has just injected a great deal of bitterness into the leadership contest.

Meanwhile, those around Boris Johnson are on a war footing. The former Mayor continued with his speaking engagements last night, but his friends and particularly those involved in trying to sell Boris to the party over the past few years are utterly furious and feel that Gove was responsible for the very weaknesses in the Boris campaign that he identified as reasons for turning on his friend.

For this reason, even though Gove is a heavyweight politician who is, in the words of one minister who is backing him, the very embodiment of the social justice cause that all the candidates are trying to preach in this contest, he is likely to find a serious Stop Gove operation underway. It may be therefore that he struggles to attract much support.

But a number of Tory MPs are actually rather relieved that Boris has gone as a candidate, even though they weren’t part of the aggressive Stop Boris campaign. One says: ‘A lot of my colleagues nonetheless are breathing a sigh of relief that we are not being asked to gamble on a joker (in the playing card sense). What might have paid off but was a huge risk is now off the table.’ Another points out that the Stop Boris campaign would have stepped up so many notches for the official contest that it would have been very divisive fight, and very damaging to the party in the eyes of the country. That said, Gove’s behaviour doesn’t make that contest any less divisive.