London: Britain's defence secretary Ben Wallace, one of the favourites in polls to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced on Saturday that he would not throw his hat into the already acrimonious leadership race.
The likely months-long campaign, potentially pitting more than a dozen Tory lawmakers and multiple factions of the ruling party against each another, is set to be formalised Monday when a committee of backbenchers will meet to agree the timetable and rules.
Four contenders have so far declared they are standing. The early frontrunner is former finance minister Rishi Sunak, who helped kickstart the cabinet revolt that led to Johnson's forced resignation on Thursday.
Sunak resigned late Tuesday, triggering dozens of more junior colleagues to follow suit and forcing his ex-boss to then quit as Tory leader 36 hours later.
But Johnson, whose three-year premiership has been defined by scandal, the country's departure from the European Union and Covid, said he would stay on until his successor is selected.
A summer of rancorous campaigning now looms. Party members will eventually choose their new leader - from a two-person shortlist whittled down in multiple rounds of MPs' voting - before the Conservatives' annual conference in early October.
Taxation is set to be a key feature of the race, alongside candidates' Brexit credentials, as Britain faces the toxic combination of high inflation and rampant cost-of-living increases alongside stagnant growth and relatively high tax rates.
Alongside Sunak, attorney general and arch-Brexiteer Suella Braverman, the relatively unknown former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch and backbench Tory MP Tom Tugendhat have announced their candidacies.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and new finance minister Nadhim Zahawi - who replaced Sunak in the treasury on Wednesday - are expected to join the crowded field which could feature as many as 15 contenders.
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was runner-up to Boris Johnson in 2019, is also "virtually certain" to run again, allies told UK media.
However, Wallace who has impressed as defence chief and been among the frontrunners in several recent polls, said he would not stand after discussing a bid with colleagues and family.
"It has not been an easy choice to make, but my focus is on my current job and keeping this great country safe," he added on Twitter.
Sunak, narrowly ahead of Truss atop the latest poll of party members, drew immediate support from several senior MPs after declaring he was standing in a slick video on social media late Friday.
He was also swiftly attacked by Johnson loyalists in a sign of the acrimony that could blight the contest.
Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg denounced him as a "high tax" finance minister who had failed to curb inflation, amid reports of a coordinated push to derail his bid for the top job.
The Financial Times said Saturday there was "huge anger" within the outgoing prime minister's team at Sunak over his resignation, with a senior official calling him "a treacherous bastard".
Following the nearly 60 resignations that triggered his decision to quit, Johnson assembled a new team to govern in the interim, announcing a flurry of junior appointments late Friday.
At a first meeting of his hastily convened top ministers, the 58-year-old conceded Thursday that "major fiscal decisions should be left for the next prime minister", Downing Street said.
The coming contest will see the various Conservative contenders face several rounds of votes among all 358 Tory MPs, with the lowest ranked eliminated each time.
The last two standing are then put to a ballot of party members.
The Conservatives have declined to say how many eligible members they have but note it will be more than the 160,000 who voted at the last leadership contest in 2019.
As the list of candidates grows, some senior lawmakers have warned that the field will need to narrow quickly.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee which manages the contest, predicted to Times Radio that the final two-person shortlist to put to members could be decided within weeks, before parliament's summer recess starting after July 21.