Kemi Badenoch has hit out at Conservative plotters for “stirring” by suggesting she could replace Rishi Sunak – but did not rule out a future leadership bid.
The Business Secretary, who has emerged as the favourite potential candidate in polling of Tory members, said speculation about her ambitions was “all a distraction”.
Touring broadcast studios on Sunday, she insisted those mentioning her name were not her friends.
“They need to stop messing around and get behind the leader,” she told Sky’s Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips.
“The fact of the matter is most people in the country are not interested in all of this Westminster tittle-tattle.
“Quite frankly, the people who keep putting my name in there are not my friends. They don’t care about me. They don’t care about my family or what this would entail. They are just stirring.”
However, she did not deny having aspirations for the top job, telling the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg: “If you’d asked me two years ago in January 2022 I would have laughed it off and said it was a completely crazy idea.
“You never really know these things until you’re in the moment. What I would remind people is that after Liz Truss left I stood up and said I’m not running again, Rishi’s the person who should do the job. I did so because I worked with him the Treasury, I knew he had a handle on the economy.”
It comes after Sir Simon Clarke went public claiming the Tories face electoral “massacre” under Mr Sunak as the Prime Minister faces pressure from the right of his party over key issues like his plan to save the Government’s Rwanda plan.
Ms Badenoch revealed on Sunday she had called the former Cabinet minister after he wrote an op-ed in the Telegraph calling for a new leader to ask him “what on earth he was doing”.
“This is exactly the sort of thing that we have to stop doing in public,” Ms Badenoch said.
“We can have private discussions about what is going wrong, and I actually think it is healthy for us to have a debate. For there not to be a debate is unhealthy, but to put all that in front of the public is contributing to the belief that we are more focused on internal matters than external matters, and that is not true.”
It was put to her that she was frustrated by her colleagues’ behaviour, to which she replied: “Extremely frustrated.”
Senior Conservatives have leapt to Mr Sunak’s defence as infighting broke out into the open this week starting with Sir Simon’s intervention.
Will Dry, a former aide who conducted polling in No 10, later said the country is heading for “at least a decade of Labour rule” as it emerged he had joined a rebel plot to topple the PM.
The latest turmoil for the Tory leader was triggered by a major opinion poll that put his party on course for a 1997-style wipeout, which Conservative peer Lord David Frost used to argue the party would “lose and lose bad unless we do something about it”.
The former Cabinet minister was named as the contact on the YouGov research, but it was commissioned by a group calling itself the Conservative Britain Alliance.
Lord Frost has not said who funded the poll but is understood to have been warned he could have the Tory whip withdrawn if he worked with another party after being pressed on whether Reform UK stumped up the funds.
The research was published just as MPs were weighing up how to vote on the Prime Minister’s Safety of Rwanda Bill – timing seen by some as designed to inflict damage on his leadership.
Senior party figures including Ms Badenoch have hailed him as the best candidate to lead the country to the polls this year rather than what would be a fourth leader since their 2019 general election victory.