The prospect of Johnson’s return is a polarising issue for many in a divided Conservative Party, while his popularity among voters had also tumbled before he was forced out.
For some lawmakers, he is a vote winner, able to appeal across the country with his celebrity image and brand of energetic optimism. For others, he is a toxic figure who would fail to unite the party and so might undermine efforts to build a stable leadership to calm rattled financial markets.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly endorsed Johnson on Sunday, saying he had “learnt lessons from his time in Number 10 and will ensure the focus is on the needs of the country from day one”.
However, Sunak continued to extend his lead among lawmakers. Sky News put his support at 140 declarations, with Johnson on 59. Around 130 lawmakers have not publicly declared.
If chosen, Sunak would be the first prime minister of Indian origin in the United Kingdom.
His family migrated to Britain in the 1960s, a period when many people from Britain’s former colonies arrived to help rebuild the country after the Second World War.
After graduating from Oxford University, he later went to Stanford University where he met his wife Akshata Murthy, whose father is Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of outsourcing giant Infosys Ltd.
Sunak first came to national attention when, aged 39, he became finance minister under Johnson just as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Britain, developing a furlough scheme to support millions of people through multiple lockdowns.
“I served as your chancellor, helping to steer our economy through the toughest of times,” Sunak said in a statement on Sunday. “The challenges we face now are even greater. But the opportunities – if we make the right choice – are phenomenal.”
Despite polls showing Sunak to be more popular in the country, he remains deeply unpopular with large parts of the party membership after they blamed him for bringing down Johnson.
According to the rules of the accelerated contest, if only one candidate secures the backing of 100 Conservative lawmakers, they will be named prime minister on Monday.
If two candidates pass the threshold, they will go forward to a vote of the party membership, with the winner announced on Friday, just days before finance minister Jeremy Hunt is due to lay bare the state of the country’s finances on Oct 31.
Johnson would not remove Hunt, the Telegraph reported.
Johnson’s backers say he has secured the support of more than 100 lawmakers, but that many are keeping quiet because they still have government jobs.
One backer, James Duddridge, said Johnson spoke to his supporters on Sunday and was on “good form” and smartly dressed.
So far none of the three candidates has given any detail about what policies they would introduce if they became prime minister.