Andrea Leadsom emerges as pro-Brexit choice as Gove loses support following Boris 'betrayal'
Michael Gove's hopes of becoming UK Prime Minister have suffered a blow after a number of senior anti-EU MPs and the Ukip-linked campaign group Leave.eu swung behind Andrea Leadsom's campaign to be the 'Brexit candidate' for Conservative leader.
Launching his campaign yesterday, Mr Gove pledged a hard line on immigration, "radical" action on executive pay and increased NHS spending.
But the Justice Secretary, who sensationally entered the race on Thursday after withdrawing his support from Boris Johnson, thwarting his former ally's Downing Street ambitions, now risks being outflanked from the right by Ms Leadsom - and is also facing recriminations from supporters of Mr Johnson, who has dropped out of the race.
Theresa May remains the runaway favourite, having secured the support of nearly 100 MPs. Mr Gove, Ms Leadsom and Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb have the confirmed support of around 20 each, while former Defence Secretary Liam Fox is lagging behind and is currently the most likely candidate to drop out after the first round of voting on Tuesday.
Ms Leadsom's credentials as the 'pure Brexit' candidate were burnished yesterday after she won the backing of former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair Bernard Jenkin.
Wycombe MP Steve Baker, who chairs the Eurosceptic group Conservatives for Britain, is also backing Ms Leadsom. Meanwhile, Leave.eu, the campaign group led by Ukip donor Arron Banks, said the energy minister was the most popular candidate among their Conservative supporters.
Ms May wanted Britain to remain in the EU, but kept a low profile during the referendum campaign, and has reached out to Brexit supporters by making it clear she would respect the referendum result and bring an end to freedom of movement from the EU. Her campaign was boosted yesterday by the support of two more Cabinet ministers - Michael Fallon and Patrick McLoughlin. She is also backed by Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock, a close ally of George Osborne, who has yet to back a candidate. But in a direct challenge to Ms May yesterday, Mr Gove said that the next prime minister should be someone who backed Brexit.
The Justice Secretary faced a call to quit the race yesterday from Tory grandee Ken Clarke, who condemned the "student union election" tactics on show in his clash with Mr Johnson. Preston North MP Ben Wallace, a Boris Johnson supporter, was less charitable, joking on Twitter that Mr Gove would face the same fate as Theon Greyjoy on 'Game of Thrones' - a character who is brutally castrated.
But in a defiant speech yesterday, Mr Gove said he was driven by "conviction" to become Prime Minister, and committed himself to Vote Leave's campaign pledges to end freedom of movement and bring down immigration. However, he failed to outline a model for Britain's new relationship with the EU and the single market, and insisted Article 50, the formal mechanism for withdrawing from the EU, need not be invoked this year.
Claiming the Brexit vote would not hit "national prosperity", he promised £100m a week in extra funds for the NHS and for house-building. However, his projections suffered a blow as Chancellor George Osborne announced, while Mr Gove was speaking, that he was abandoning the Government's target to be in financial surplus by 2020, warning the referendum was expected to produce "a significant economic shock" for the country.