Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are said to have held talks late into the evening as speculation mounted over whether the pair could strike a deal to lay the foundations for a united Conservative government.

Johnson lagged behind his former chancellor in public support from MPs as Mr Sunac gained a valuable ally in Kemi Badenoch on Saturday and the ex-prime minister’s supporters contested claims he had reached the numbers needed to secure a place on the Tory ballot. paper

Sir James Duddridge, a friend of Mr Johnson, said the former prime minister had the support of the 100 MPs needed to reserve his place on the ballot.

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Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at London’s Gatwick Airport on Saturday (Gareth Fuller/PA)

But Sunac supporter Richard Holden questioned the suggestion, arguing that an equivalent number of public statements had not been made “because they don’t exist”.

As the day drew to a close, neither Mr Johnson nor Mr Sunak had announced their candidacy, with reports that the pair held talks in the evening to agree on a joint ticket.

International trade secretary and former leadership contender Ms Badenoch, in a blow to Mr Johnson’s election campaign should he decide to seek a second Downing Street post, backed the ex-chancellor, insisting it was not yet time for ” nostalgia for the cavalier impulse of 2019″.

She admitted she was “at times” a member of “Boris Johnson’s fan club”, but she said the Tories were not “running a popularity contest” and stressed the party was “not a vehicle for one person’s personal ambitions”. .

Mr Johnson has returned to Britain to plan a second bid for the top job, which has divided opinion among Tory MPs, including his former allies.

He arrived at Gatwick Airport on Saturday morning with his family after a break from a holiday in the Dominican Republic following the dramatic resignation of Liz Truss on Thursday.

Meanwhile, an aide to the former home secretary Suella Braverman told the PA news agency that she had personally been “strongly courted” by both Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak and was likely to decide who to back for the Tory leadership on Sunday.

​​​​​​​Despite being the only candidate to announce so far, Cabinet Secretary Penny Mordaunt is far behind her potential rivals in public support from MPs, with just 21 candidates compared to Mr Johnson’s 44 and Mr Johnson’s 44, according to the PA tally. 113 at Mr. Sunak’s.

Outlining her plan to “unite party and country” in the Express, she warned that the Tories had “allowed themselves to be distracted by internal disputes”.

Ms Mordaunt used her speech to highlight the need to “make Brexit work”, “focus on the potential of all our citizens” and “protect our Union and its territorial integrity”, pledging to support reform of the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol.

She insisted she was not seeking the top job for an “easy ride” and promised to build a government that “draws on all our best talent”.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Ms Badenoch said her party needed to remind people that “the Conservatives care about the country, not themselves”.

The international trade minister suggested Mr Sunak would bring a “disciplined approach” to the government, citing his “fiscal conservatism” and stressing that “being able to say no now is what we need”.

She said everyone in the party would have to make “sacrifices” to prove to people that the Tories can “come together”.

For her, that means giving up a second leadership bid, she said, while some will have to give up working in government under a candidate they like “so that others can be brought into the tent.”

Mr Johnson’s potential return has divided opinion even among his parliamentary party allies, including his former deputy prime minister and foreign secretary Dominic Raab.

Mr Raab said “we cannot go back” and noted that the ex-prime minister was facing an investigation into his actions over Partygate.

He backed Mr Sunac, saying he was “very confident” the former chancellor would run.

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Rishi Sunak outside his home in London on Saturday morning (Beresford Hodge/Pennsylvania)

Moments after Mr Johnson landed in the UK on Saturday, former home secretary Priti Patel said he had her support, but his potential bid failed as former close allies Steve Barclay and Lord Frost urged colleagues to support Mr Johnson. – on Sunak.

Mr. Johnson’s father, Stanley, predicted that his son would make a name for himself and defeat Mr. Sunak in a head-to-head contest.

The former prime minister currently has the support of six cabinet ministers: Ben Wallace, Jacob Rhys-Mogg, Simon Clarke, Chris Heaton-Harris, Alok Sharma and Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

But his public support was a far cry from that of Mr. Sunak.

Tory MPs will vote on Monday and two candidates will be nominated as party members unless one withdraws, with the result announced on Friday.

Candidates have until 2pm on Monday to secure 100 nominations, limiting the vote to a maximum of three candidates.

Mr Johnson’s supporters believe that if he can make it to the bottom two, he will win the final online vote by party activists, among whom he remains very popular.

Some MPs have warned they will quit their Tories and enter the House of Commons as independents if Johnson returns to Downing Street.

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Sir Jake Berry wants members, not just MPs, to decide the next Tory leader (Victoria Jones / PA)

Meanwhile, Conservative Party chairman Sir Jake Berry joined the affairs secretary and Johnson supporter Mr Rees-Mogg in calling for the vote to be decided by members rather than MPs.

The Tory leader told the Telegraph that the party’s future rested in the grip of an “existential crisis” and if the Tories believed in democracy, “members should not be denied a say on who will be the next leader of the party”.

He added: “We’ve seen two prime ministers in a row effectively voted out of office by MPs, despite the fact that they were given membership.

“I fear that this may be the moment when members think ‘what is the point of being a member of the Conservative Party really’.

“Politics in this country is not made by 650 MPs sitting in Parliament; it is delivered by thousands of Conservative councilors across the country who run elections for the party.’