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15 February 2024

Why Priti Patel is a good bet for the next Conservative leader

The former home secretary could unite the right by bringing back Boris Johnson and bringing in Nigel Farage.

By David Gauke

At the end of last year, I mentioned in passing that I thought Priti Patel was a good outside bet to be the next Conservative Party leader. At the time her odds were 50/1. This week I checked her odds again and they have tightened undramatically to 40/1. Are New Statesman subscribers not betting people or were they simply unpersuaded by the suggestion? Here I am, offering potentially lucrative betting tips and the market has barely moved. What is the matter with you?

It is all very well saying that Patel would make an implausible party leader, incapable of offering a broad appeal to the country at large and lacking the intellectual capacity to be seen as prime ministerial. I am not saying that is wrong, but have you forgotten that Liz Truss once got the job too? (Something which I cannot resist pointing out had been predicted here.)

If you don’t want to listen to me, try Ed Balls. On his Political Currency podcast on Monday, he suggested that Patel might come through the middle and be a surprise winner of the next Tory leadership election. As is increasingly common for my generation of Treasury ministers, I find myself in agreement with him (or him with me).

The case for Patel as Tory leader (by which I mean why she might become Tory leader as opposed to why she should) perhaps needs to be made in greater detail.

My starting assumption is that Rishi Sunak will fight the next general election, lose (potentially badly) and resign. Conservative Party members will be fractious and disenchanted. They will share the analysis set out in their favourite newspapers that the Conservatives were not conservative enough on crime, immigration and taxes; that Sunak lacked the necessary oomph to get the message over; and that the biggest problem was not the loss of votes to Labour and the Liberal Democrats but to Reform. There will be nostalgia for Boris Johnson and admiration for Nigel Farage.

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The bookies’ favourite is Kemi Badenoch, and understandably so. She is distant from but not disloyal to the Prime Minister. She has run before but is still a fresh face; she is of the right but has a broader appeal. 

Yet while Badenoch is the candidate to beat, she will also lose many of her natural supporters from the 2019 intake and has a habit of upsetting colleagues with her combative style. Early favourites often come a cropper.

Penny Mordaunt and James Cleverly are second and fourth favourites respectively at the bookies. Both are likeable and have broad appeal within the party. They would be the unity candidates, which MPs might want but members probably won’t.  

Four of the other shortest odds candidates (David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and David Frost) are not even MPs (and Farage not even a Conservative) and are highly unlikely to be when the next leader is chosen.

Then there are the three candidates bidding for the right’s vote. Suella Braverman, third in the bookies’ odds, leads the field but even many on the right think she might be too hard line. Newly positioned as a right-winger is the former immigration minister Robert Jenrick, combining trenchant views with vibes of steady competence. Ultimately, the right might find those vibes a bit suspicious. The third candidate is Patel.

Patel is personally popular among most Tory MPs (we were colleagues in the Treasury together and I found her amiable and collegiate, which admittedly, was not always the experience of officials); she is well-positioned in being out of government but not trying to destabilise the current leadership; and she can offer an argument that her opponents cannot.

Part of the right’s narrative after an election defeat will be, first, that the Tories leaked too many votes to Reform and, second, that the right’s best communicators were not employed in making the Tories’ case.

The solution will be obvious to the Tory right. Bring back Boris and bring in Nigel. Unite the right and have in place a team who can connect with ordinary people. It will be like 2019 all over again, except with Farage fully on board, not just offering a partial truce.

This is where Patel has the advantage. She is by far the best candidate to deliver on this strategy. Unlike Braverman, Jenrick and Badenoch, she stuck with Johnson until the end and he evidently likes her. As does Farage, at least judging by the pictures of them dancing together at the last Conservative Party conference.  

With some warm words from Farage and Johnson (“time to rally round the Pritster”), Patel could edge ahead of Braverman and Jenrick among MPs, pick up their votes and make it to the final two presented to the members.

If the Conservative Party suffers an emphatic election defeat, there might be existential doubts about its future. A breezy message that it would be possible to bring together the big beasts of populism together might be just what the modern Tory party membership wants to hear. Vote Patel, get Patel, Johnson and Farage.  

A dream team to some, a nightmare to others. It would represent the complete capture of the Conservative Party by the populists and open the door to either Johnson or Farage succeeding Patel in short order if they wanted to. Not a pleasing prospect? I agree. A small consolation bet at 40/1 might be quite tempting.

[See also: The prime minister for victims]

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