JEREMY Hunt has signalled he is willing to stand again against Boris Johnson for the leadership of the Conservative party.

The former foreign secretary hinted he might try to become Prime Minister before the 2024 general election, saying the Tories had “a big mountain to climb”.

Mr Hunt stood against Mr Johnson in the 2019 Tory leadership contest and came second, winning around a third of the party membership vote.

As chair of the Commons health and social care committee, he has since steered clear of the UK Government’s mounting difficulties, and criticised aspects of its pandemic response.

His intervention comes as Downing Street is under pressure for losses in the recent local elections and the Metropolitan Police issuing another 50 Partygate fines this week.

Speaking to the Times magazine, Mr Hunt said the war in Ukraine meant it was not the “right time” for a change of leadership.

“But I would be very open with you that I don’t rule out a return in the future,” he added.

Speaking to Times Radio, Mr Hunt also said the “setbacks” the party suffered in the local elections were not just “mid-term blues”, as Mr Johnson suggested last week, but reflected the wider problems with the cost-of-living crisis.

He said: “Underneath it, I think the reason that we got such a kicking was economic concerns that many families had. We are faced with a situation now where we have very, very low underlying growth in the economy.

“To win an election, the Conservative Party has to promise a well-funded NHS and the prospect of tax cuts. If we make people choose between one or the other, we’re not going to win the election.”

The number of partygate fines issued by the Met now stands at more than 100 – with Mr Johnson, his wife Carrie and Chancellor Rishi Sunak hit with fixed penalty notices in April over a birthday party held for the Prime Minister in No 10’s Cabinet Room in June 2020.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said Mr Johnson broke his own rules on a “record-breaking scale”, adding that “Britain deserves better”.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said following the Met’s update that neither the PM nor Cabinet Secretary Simon Case were among those fined in the latest batch.

The Prime Minister confirmed he was not one of the most recent recipients, nor was his wife, following a Cabinet away day in Stoke-on-Trent on Thursday.

On BBC Breakfast this morning, Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg described Partygate as a “non-story” and queried whether “the rules were right in the first place”.

He said: “I’m afraid I think this is a non-story. I mean, the BBC has absolutely loved it but what is important is that we get on with the business of government.”

Pressed on bereaved families being “devastated” that they had observed the Government’s rules while those in power were breaking them, he said: “I think people were upset.

"I think this was an important story in February when it first became known and that there was great concern, and there was a feeling of people who were bereaved, particularly, about it.”

He added: “We need to look at whether these rules were right in the first place in case we have a pandemic again because I think they were too restrictive.”