Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appeared to rebuke “plotting” against Boris Johnson within the Tory party in an apparent dig at rival Rishi Sunak as he set out his own leadership bid.
Seeking to present himself as a candidate with a track record of loyalty, Mr Shapps said he would not have started planning a campaign “behind (Boris Johnson’s) back”.
The comments come after it was reported a website with a similar name to Mr Sunak’s “Ready For Rishi” site, which redirects to the official page, appeared to have been set up as far back as December 2021.
Launching his bid in the Sunday Times, the Transport Secretary told the paper: “I have not spent the last few turbulent years plotting or briefing against the Prime Minister.
“I have not been mobilising a leadership campaign behind his back. I tell you this: for all his flaws – and who is not flawed – I like Boris Johnson.
“I have never, for a moment, doubted his love of this country.”
Mr Sunak’s team have said domains are bought all the time, adding that they had been transferred a number of them.
But even before he made his formal announcement, he had come under fire from Johnson loyalists, with Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg denouncing him as a “high tax chancellor”.
And other hopefuls also appear to have sought to distance themselves from him, with Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and Attorney General Suella Braverman, as well as Mr Shapps, pledging to curb taxes.
Mr Shapps, a long-standing ally of Mr Johnson who was key to his fight for survival during partygate, said he was “glad” he had not double-crossed the Prime Minister.
“It is easy to criticise Boris after keeping one’s head down for years while being happy to benefit from his patronage. I am glad that I did not do that,” he said.
“Even as the skies darkened over his premiership, often because of errors committed by him, I hoped he could pull it back. Because in losing him we would lose a man who makes a unique connection with people.”
Despite supporting aspects Mr Johnson’s style of governance, the Transport Secretary, who backed Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, said he would end “tactical government by an often-distracted centre”.
He claimed people had “lost sight” of what was needed from a Tory Government, suggesting his leadership would bring a return to more a traditionally Conservative approach to state.
The 53-year-old, who has three children and is Welwyn Hatfield MP, said tackling the cost-of-living crisis and strengthening the economy to become the biggest in Europe are top of his agenda.
As Transport Secretary, he dismissed calls for Government intervention in the rail strikes as a “stunt” and presided over the handling of the aftermath of the P&O Ferries scandal.
Prior to his most recent cabinet appointment, Mr Shapps has a chequered history in the Conservative Party.
Following the 2015 election, he was removed as party chairman and made a minister at the Department for International Development – a move widely seen as a demotion.
He was forced to resign from the post after just six months when it emerged that he had been warned about bullying among young party activists.
Mr Shapps denied being informed about the allegations, but quit as minister saying that “responsibility should rest somewhere”.
He was also accused of having breached the codes of conduct for ministers and MPs when it was revealed he held a second job after entering parliament, working as a marketer of get-rich-quick schemes under the pseudonym Michael Green.
Educated at his local grammar school, he set up a marketing and printing business in his early 20s before contesting his first parliamentary seat in 1997.
He eventually ousted Labour’s Melanie Johnson in 2005 to become MP for Welwyn Hatfield, being elected the Tory Party’s vice chairman the same year.
In 2007, he became shadow housing minister and following the 2010 general election – in which he retained his seat with a majority of more than 17,000.
He served as minister of state for housing and local government, being appointed to the Privy Council that June, and in 2012 was appointed co-chairman of the Tory party.