Prime minister Theresa May’s position as leader of the Conservative Party is at its most vulnerable since she took over the role in July 2016. Her MPs are voting on whether to oust her as leader, following anger over her decision to postpone the parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal.
Should she lose this confidence vote, a leadership contest would be triggered. She would not be able to stand in that contest, so it’s worth considering which of her colleagues might put themselves forward for the top job. These are the main runners an riders:
Boris Johnson is perhaps the best known and most colourful of those who’d like to compete for the leadership. He was twice elected mayor of London (holding office between 2008 and 2016) and has built up a high profile over the years as a media personality and then as an MP.
Significantly, he is the darling of the Conservative grassroots and has a broad public popularity that most other Conservatives can’t hope to replicate thanks to his eccentric image. However, he has also built up a significant level of opposition among MPs within his party who view him as untrustworthy, disloyal and lazy. And since it is they who will first choose leadership candidates, his chances look less good than they might first appear. Some MPs have even threatened to resign the party whip if he ever becomes leader.
Johnson is a divisive figure and has been accused of changing his mind about Brexit to further his own political ambitions. He failed miserably in his efforts to succeed David Cameron in 2016, and although May appointed him as her foreign secretary, his resignation over her Chequers deal suggested that he was never a loyal ally and that he ultimately retained a desire for the party leadership.
Dominic Raab succeeded David Davis as Brexit secretary in July 2018, but his tenure proved to be short-lived. By November he, too, had resigned due to his opposition to May’s final proposed deal for Brexit.
While his resignation failed to prompt the prime minister’s departure – as may have originally been hoped – Raab’s apparently principled position won him some kudos from Conservative eurosceptic backbenchers. Relatively youthful and less well known than some of his leadership rivals, this could be both a strength and a weakness. He has fewer enemies and represents a fresh start, but he is also more of an unknown quantity. Wavering MPs may be unwilling to trust him with their support as a result.
Amber Rudd is seen as the great hope of Conservative Remainers. She raised her profile and gained credit for her prominent role in the televised Brexit debates during the summer of 2016. She also played a high-profile role during the 2017 general election campaign, and is largely seen as a May loyalist, who was recently brought back into the Cabinet after exiting as home secretary following the Windrush scandal. She has spoken out in support of a second referendum to approve any final deal.
Rudd’s explicitly pro-European views make Conservative eurosceptics hostile towards her. Although Remainers form a minority of Conservative MPs, Rudd could offer the prospect of delivering a calming and pragmatic soft Brexit option, which could win some support from across the parliamentary party. However, the vulnerability of her own marginal parliamentary seat would make hear a risky leadership option if a general election was held in the near future.
Davis can certainly be classed as being at the “veteran” stage of his political career, but with this brings significant experience. An MP for over 30 years, a former leadership candidate in 2005, and having served in the government of John Major in the 1990s, Davis also has longstanding eurosceptic credentials and became the first Brexit secretary in May’s government. His supporters would see him a safe pair of hands.
However, his resignation from Cabinet in the summer was seen as disloyal by some and there have been negative comments about his poor negotiating skills when dealing with the EU.
Michael Gove was originally a close ally of David Cameron and his Notting Hill set, and played a key role in getting the Conservative Party modernised prior to its return to power in 2010. He was a radical and reforming education secretary but his relationship with Cameron cooled when he was sidelined to the role of chief whip in 2014, and it further deteriorated when he took on a prominent role in the Leave campaign in 2016. The two men are reported to have never spoken since.
Gove also reversed his initial support for Johnson’s leadership bid in 2016 and then instead unsuccessfully put himself forward for the role. Although reappointed to cabinet in 2017, such manoeuvrings gained him a reputation of being treacherous and disloyal, and this may count against him should a leadership vacancy arise. He has stuck with May as environment secretary but turned down the job of Brexit secretary when Raab resigned.
Sajid Javid is a rising star within the Conservative Party and appears to encapsulate many of its key beliefs. He is a self-made man, born into a poor immigrant family, who rose through the social ranks to forge a successful career in banking before entering into politics.
An MP for less than ten years and appointed to the cabinet by Cameron in 2014, he has held a number of senior ministerial roles since, and currently occupies one of the great offices of state as home secretary.
He was a sceptical Remainer but has endorsed Brexit since. Britain has never had a BME prime minister and his Pakistani descent could help his party broaden its appeal among voters. The Conservatives have, in recent elections, struggled to win support within the BME community.
Hunt can be seen as a leadership dark horse and is currently one of the great survivors of British politics. He has endured numerous reshuffles and leadership changes to remain as one of the few continuously serving members of the Conservative cabinet since 2010. Although he campaigned for remain in 2016, he has loyally argued the Brexit case since and was rewarded earlier in 2018 when May promoted him to foreign secretary after a long term as health secretary.
This new role has given him some firsthand insight into the Brexit process and its international diplomatic implications. Given this background and his apparent capacity for political survival at a senior level, he may have the potential to draw support from both wings of the party’s MPs.
These would appear to be the main contenders to succeed May, although outsider bets from the party’s eurosceptic wing such as Esther McVey and Penny Mordaunt have also been touted as having the potential and ambition to emerge from a crowded field. What is clear is that unlike May’s unchallenged accession in 2016, the next party leader is not an obvious choice.