LONDON: Nine Conservative MPs will begin a 36-hour scramble to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister today (Tuesday) as they try to amass enough support from backbenchers.
The party's ruling 1922 committee announced a truncated leadership timetable which will see a new leader elected by the beginning of September, a month earlier than expected.
Boris Johnson, the hot favourite, was attempting to secure the support of Mr Cameron's most senior allies, such as George Osborne, the Chancellor, in an effort to give his campaign an unassailable lead.
Westminster observers said that the faster timetable would allow the Government not to delay too long before triggering formal talks about Britain's exit from the European Union. It would also give the next leader time to call a general election for November and win a mandate to govern.
Mr Johnson, the former London mayor, is the clear favourite because of his support among the Tory grassroots. His allies are actively courting Cabinet ministers including Amber Rudd, the Energy Secretary, to support him.
There is growing confidence that George Osborne, the Chancellor, is close to agreeing to support Mr Johnson's leadership bid, by agreeing to take a role as Foreign Secretary or continuing in his job at the Treasury.
Yesterday Nick Boles, the business minister, became the first senior Cameron ally formally to endorse Mr Johnson's bid.
However, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is certain to run for leader and is building growing support from MPs angry at Mr Johnson for his conduct during the referendum. One senior source said Mrs May had an "unbelievably good chance", with MPs calling her the "stop Boris candidate".
Mr Johnson is seen as a highly divisive figure. One pro-Remain former Cabinet minister said: "To say he is not well liked is an understatement."
In a sign of the extent to which MPs are considering alliances it emerged that Stephen Crabb, the Work and Pensions Secretary, was discussing running on a joint ticket separately with Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, and Sajid Javid, the Business Secretary, to win votes from the 2010 intake.
Liam Fox, the former defence secretary who stood against Mr Cameron in 2005, is also considering a bid. The Telegraph understands that Tory backers have pledged donations to his campaign. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, was putting feelers out at the weekend about his level of support.
Penny Mordaunt, the armed forces minister, and Andrea Leadsom, the Treasury minister, who saw their stock rise during the referendum campaign, are also considering standing.
Nominations open at 6pm tomorrow and close at midday on Thursday, according to the draft accelerated timetable which has to be approved by the party's ruling board today. Tory MPs will then vote on the following Tuesdays and Thursdays to whittle the candidates down to two. Those names will be put to a postal ballot of 150,000 members. The winner should be announced by September 2.