Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s chief whip in Westminster, indicated that Arlene Foster is Peter Robinson’s favoured candidate to take the reins from him – adding that she now has the backing of most DUP MPs.
Mr Donaldson said Nigel Dodds had been under “no pressure” to pull out of the running after the DUP deputy leader revealed he was dropping out of contention on Monday.
The removal of Mr Dodds from the running means Mrs Foster’s candidacy for both the post of First Minister and party leader has been greatly strengthened.
Mr Robinson himself said late on Monday night that Mrs Foster had the backing of three-quarters of those eligible to vote.
However, she still may not have a totally clear run.
Nominations do not close until Wednesday.
And when asked directly if he would stand for DUP leader, party veteran Sammy Wilson declined to make any comment.
When it was suggested to him that Mrs Foster is Mr Robinson’s choice as his successor, Mr Donaldson said: “He’s presiding over the election, so he can’t support a nomination as outgoing leader.”
Pressed on whether his personal preference was for Mrs Foster, Mr Donaldson said: “I think so, yes.”
At the time he spoke to the News Letter last night, Mr Donaldson said Mrs Foster is being supported by “at least six” of the DUP’s eight MPs, as well as “a large number” of MLAs.
However, he declined to reveal who the other two MPs who had not backed her were, adding: “She has only been collecting signatures this afternoon, so it may be by now she has got eight, I don’t know.”
Last night Mr Robinson himself wrote on Twitter that “Arlene’s nomination was submitted with the support of over 75 per cent of those entitled to vote in the electoral college.”
Asked if there is any sense that anyone may stand against her, Mr Donaldson said: “I think that Arlene has tremendous support within the party and I’m confident she will be elected to be our next leader.”
When a rumour that Sammy Wilson may stand for the leadership was put to him, Mr Donaldson said: “Sammy indicated last week that he wasn’t standing for the leadership. I think that in the end each individual party member must come to their own view on this, so I wouldn’t want to speculate on that.”
BBC journalist Mark Simpson posted a number of messages on Twitter on Monday, indicating that Mr Wilson could possibly stand for the DUP leadership (he cannot stand for First Minister, since he is not an MLA).
The News Letter contacted him and asked if he may indeed run.
He said: “I haven’t said anything about it, and I’m not intending to say anything about it... As far as I’m concerned, I’ve not made any comment on the issue at all.”
He added: “I’m making no comment on it at all, and when I do have comment to make I’ll issue a proper statement, but I don’t think I want to say anything about it.”
A final decision is due to be made by the party on Thursday.