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Westminster's own Game of Thrones begins: Tory leadership contenders set out their stall as Theresa May goes on break

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 4 days ago JOE MURPHY
The battle to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister has begun. © Reuters The battle to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister has begun.

The battle to replace Theresa May intensified today with a warning that the Conservatives are doomed unless they choose a new leader who can appeal to “Metropolitan Britain”.

A string of current and former Cabinet ministers paraded their credentials as potential successors to the Prime Minister as she left Westminster for a walking holiday in Wales.

Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson clashed with speeches and interviews setting out their core values.

Related: Hammond mocks Tory leadership 'suicide pact' (Daily Mail)

Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab bet on his ability to overtake the frontrunners, referencing Game Of Thrones in a tweet. “I’m not alone in backing Arya,” he said. “It’s never the favourite.”

But the first solid endorsement of the day was for another dark horse cantering up from the back, as Health Secretary Matt Hancock was hailed as the best candidate to unite the country and stem long-term Tory decline in the cities.

Stephen Hammond, health minister and former party vice-chairman for London, told the Evening Standard that it was time for a “generational shift” of the kind that saw David Cameron leapfrog older rivals in 2005.

“We are electing a prime minister, not just a party leader, and we also want someone who can lead the Tories for five years and beyond, what ever the result of the next general election,” Mr Hammond said. Theresa May wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Local News RSS EN-GB

“There is a real difference between Metropolitan Britain and the rest of Britain. We have to be a party that represents and understands all of Britain — and we can’t do that if we don’t understand Metropolitan Britain.

“If the Tories retreat to just being the party of the shires at a time when more and more people are going to be living in towns, that’s not a good place for us to be. We need someone who understands both, and the problem is that at the moment we are only perceived as understanding one.” Matthew Hancock sitting in a car: Health Secretary Matt Hancock was hailed as the best candidate to unite the country (Jack Taylor/Getty Images) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Health Secretary Matt Hancock was hailed as the best candidate to unite the country (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Mr Hammond said the Health Secretary, aged 40, understood both urban and rural Britain, was relatively “untainted by Brexit”, and could appeal to people under 35, as well as older voters.

“Having worked with him, I am staggeringly impressed with him as an individual,” he went on.

“He has a good easy style with people, but he is very clear about what he wants to achieve. He is sharp, he gets it straight away. He also delegates and is a good manager, which is important for a prime minister.”

He added: “As I look round my colleagues, there are probably two or three who could do it, but it is time to make that big jump as we did in 2005, to make another generational shift.”

In other bids for the Tory throne, Home Secretary Mr Javid gave a speech on crime that dwelled on his tough upbringing, the need to strengthen communities and revealed his own fears as a father of teenagers that the streets are not safe. Boris Johnson wearing a hat: Boris Johnson also delivered a speech setting out his core values (PA) © Provided by Local News RSS EN-GB Boris Johnson also delivered a speech setting out his core values (PA)

“I may be the Home Secretary but I’m not ashamed to confess ... I have stayed up late many times just so I can hear the key turning in the door,” he said. The former banker stressed his commitment to “stronger communities”, saying they were just as important as economic success.

“Economic prosperity can create the building blocks to stronger communities but that alone is not enough,” he said.

Mr Javid claimed he might himself have turned to “a life of crime” but for his parents and teachers. “I grew up on what was dubbed by a tabloid the most dangerous street in Britain,” he said. Home Secretary Sajid Javid © Getty Home Secretary Sajid Javid

“It’s not so difficult to see how instead of ending up in the Cabinet, I could have been taken in to a life of crime.”

He concluded with an appeal for social justice: “No life is less important than another. No future should be pre-determined by where you’re born, or how you’re brought up. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.”

Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt took a swipe at his rivals, saying the “total focus” of ministers had be on getting a Brexit deal through to avoid having to stage European Parliament elections in May.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme during a tour of Japan, he did not deny he wanted to wear the Tory crown but said: “I have to focus on getting Brexit sorted.”

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt © Reuters Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt

He warned against becoming “submerged in the mire of Brexit indecision”, saying: “It is absolutely clear that Brexit paralysis, if it continues for a long time, will be highly damaging to our international standing.”

Former foreign secretary Mr Johnson used his weekly Daily Telegraph column to broaden his appeal beyond the Brexiteers with a promise that “a pent up tide of Tory ideas” on other issues will “flood the country” once Britain is out of the EU.

But digital minister Margot James said she would not serve under Mr Johnson if he became Tory leader. Asked if she would stay in the party if someone who supports a hard Brexit became leader, Ms James told BBC Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour: “I have already said I wouldn’t serve under Boris Johnson. Not just because of his Brexit views, but because of his performance as foreign secretary as well which I felt really let the country down.”

Meanwhile, Chancellor Philip Hammond mocked the failed bids to beat Mrs May in 2016 by Mr Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove as an “unintended suicide pact”.

In a speech in America, the Chancellor also said that Commons leader Andrea Leadsom had effectively “knifed herself” during the race to become Tory leader and prime minister in 2016.

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