Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign has been bolstered by the backing of former defence secretary Gavin Williamson, the Mail can reveal.
Mr Williamson is not yet making a public endorsement, but sources said he was playing an active role in bringing MPs into the Boris camp.
Allies of Mr Johnson hope the recruitment of the former chief whip – who is well known for his organisational skills and network of supportive MPs – could yet prove a critical factor in the leadership race.
Before he was dramatically sacked from the Cabinet three weeks ago, Mr Williamson was widely seen as a potential ‘kingmaker’.
Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign is being supported by former defence secretary Gavin Williamson
He was fired by Theresa May at the start of the month when she accused him of leaking details of discussions about China from the National Security Council – allegations he furiously denied.
A source said he ‘thinks Boris is the only candidate who can deliver Brexit, beat Corbyn and beat Farage.’
He will not take on a formal role in the campaign, which is being coordinated by former Tory MP James Wharton, but is expected to be hugely influential behind the scenes.
Mr Williamson was a close aide to David Cameron and backed Theresa May early in the 2016 leadership campaign. He was credited then with bringing significant numbers of Tory MPs on board.
He also played a key role in the aftermath of the 2017 election debacle in doing a deal with the DUP which kept Mrs May in No10.
Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg also publicly backed Mr Johnson for the first time yesterday, saying: ‘He is a candidate in a different league to others.
‘He creates an excitement about politics.’
Mr Williamson believes that Boris Johnson is the only Tory candidate that can beat Labour's Jeremy Corbyn and the Brexit Party's Nigel Farage
Mr Rees-Mogg has been privately supporting Mr Johnson for months and has hosted dinners for MPs at his Westminster home.
It came as a survey of 4,000 Labour members showed Mr Johnson was the Tory they overwhelmingly fear because he could beat Jeremy Corbyn. Asked by the Labourlist website which Tory MP would be ‘most difficult’ for Mr Corbyn to defeat, nearly half (45 per cent) said Mr Johnson.
The second place candidate was Development Secretary Rory Stewart on eight per cent, ahead of Amber Rudd, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt on seven per cent.
Just six per cent said Home Secretary Sajid Javid and three per cent former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss scored less than one per cent.
Meanwhile Defence minister Tobias Ellwood accused leadership contenders of treating the race like a ‘reality TV show’.
Speaking at a defence event in Parliament he confirmed he is not planning to stand saying: ‘No I’m not standing, absolutely not. I don’t have the experience, I don’t have the rank to stand as leader.’
He added: ‘I wish some of my colleagues with humility would take the post a little bit more seriously.
‘This is not a reality TV show. Ambition is good, it allows us to elevate ourselves and reach higher levels, but ambition on its own is purely selfish and trying to promote the individual.
‘How does it look to a nation when we have got the biggest issue there, Brexit, and yet we have got so many – what is it, up to 20, 25 people – thinking, or toying, or denying being firm with the answer, to say: ‘No, I’m not going to stand’.
He added: ‘We can’t do anything until we solve Brexit. All this talk about leadership contenders just shows us as being a little self-indulgent and parochial.’