The Steady Hand: Theresa May
Who? The longest-serving Home Secretary for more than 100 years, May has held the Great Office of State since 2010. Her hard line on immigration (everything from restricting foreign student visas to her Department mooting the infamous “Go Home vans”) has defined her time in office, although she has also been tough towards the Police Federation and her most memorable message has been for the Tories to shed their “nasty party” label.
Support base: An early advocate of Tory modernisation, the Home Secretary, 59, has won backers from the party’s liberal wing, including Jeremy Hunt, Justine Greening, Alan Duncan, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. For political balance, her campaign is chaired by social conservative Chris Grayling and she is also supported by Brexiters such as Nadhim Zahawi, Kwasi Kwarteng and Mike Penning.
Pros: May has unrivalled ministerial experience. Her reluctant backing for the Remain campaign and anti-immigration stance make her acceptable to pro-Leave Tory activists, while her comprehensive education helpfully contrasts with the outgoing leadership. She is also popular in Whitehall, known for personally thanking civil servants in her Department for the work they do for her.
Cons: Her support for Remain, albeit lukewarm, exposes her to the charge that she cannot credibly lead the post-Brexit negotiations. May’s lack of charisma is also cited by opponents who believe the Tories need a more magnetic personality.
Pitch to the party: A serious candidate for serious times. As the UK endures perhaps its greatest crisis of the post-war era, the Maidenhead MP offers herself as a competent, Merkel-esque figure.
Quotable quote: “My pitch is simple – I’m Theresa May and I think I’m the best person to lead this country.”
The Backstabber: Michael Gove
Who? The chap-hop rapping, teacher-hassling, ukulele-strumming, lederhosen-sporting, journalist-schmoozing, oddly civil backstabbing ideologue and Justice Secretary, Michael Gove is the most polarising candidate in the race. Loved in the Westminster bubble, but with a toxic reputation among voters, the 49-year-old MP for Surrey Heath has become a bit of a cult political character – his private life captured in all its damply titillating glory in his wife Sarah Vine’s Mail column. He is best known for forcing through divisive reforms during his four years as Education Secretary.
Support base: A few influential government figures who represent a range of Tory factions: Ed Vaizey, Nick Boles, Dominic Raab, Nicky Morgan, John Whittingdale, George Eustice are frontbenchers to note.
Pros: A big name and a Brexiteer, who has proved multiple times that he has big political vision and can realise it against the odds.
Cons: Betrayed Boris Johnson, by withdrawing his support and announcing he would be running. Nobody likes a backstabber. He is also very unpopular with the electorate, not that this matters particularly in the current circumstances – but he looks less of a safe bet for the Tories’ long-term electoral chances than some of his rivals.
Pitch to the party: The change candidate. Bold vision rather than business as usual.
Quotable quote: “Whatever charisma is – I don’t have it.”
The Full-Bore Brexiteer: Andrea Leadsom
Who? The Tonbridge grammar school girl-turned-Tory A Lister is one of the lesser-known candidates in the contest. Leaving her highflying banking career, the 53-year-old Leadsom was elected in 2010 to represent South Northamptonshire, and first made a name for herself on the Treasury Select Committee, riling the Chancellor up particularly during the Libor scandal. Eventually, she was brought into the tent as Economic Secretary to the Treasury for a year from 2014, and then promoted to Energy Secretary last year.
Support base: During the EU referendum, Leadsom became the darling of the Brexiteers, representing the Leave campaign in numerous polished media performances . She has therefore attracted the support of big Brexit beasts like Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson, Penny Mordaunt, Owen Paterson and Bernard Jenkin. The Ukip donor Arron Banks has even suggested he could fund Leadsom’s campaign.
Pros: She is the only viable Brexiteer candidate without the blood of her political allies on her hands. Indeed, so comforting is her reputation among supporters that she has earned the shudderingly Tory, and sexist, nickname “Mummy”. This is also due to her obsession with mentioning her “children and grandchildren” in the EU television debates.
Cons: She doesn’t have great name recognition, and is being hammered for her tax arrangements, which have come under intense scrutiny. She also has a rather terrifying host of rightwing views. When appointed Energy Secretary, she asked whether climate change was real, and she has defended bankers’ bonuses and argued against maternity pay and minimum wage at small businesses. Like Crabb, a committed Christian, she did not vote for gay marriage.
Pitch to the party: Her pitch, according to Tory sources, is: “Three b’s – Brussels, banks and babies”.
Quotable quote: “The person who leads the country has to be someone who believes in the opportunities in leaving the EU.”
And who’s out of the running?
The Falling Phoenix: Liam Fox
Who? A former army doctor, the 54-year-old North Somerset MP was initially prominent in the coalition government as Secretary of State for Defence. But his chances of building his own political force were put on hold after he was forced to resign in 2011, due to questionable dealings with the lobbyist Adam Werritty. Since then, his social as well as economic conservatism has been confined to the backbenches.
Support base: His backers include a former Defence colleague, Gerald Howarth, and Transport minister Robert Goodwill.
Pros: Fox picked the right side of the EU referendum debate, and since the vote has been one of the few Leave campaigners to have a clear plan. He has demanded a “Brexit for grown-ups” and pledged to make the most of the new freedoms.
Cons: Fox’s decision to run will dredge up the questions of crony politics that forced him to resign in 2011. An investigation found he had allowed Werritty, a close friend, to take an unofficial role at the Ministry of Defence without security clearance.
Pitch to the party: A true Conservative in touch with the grassroots. Hawkish, economically prudent and more than ready for Brexit Britain, Fox will be a tough negotiator on the world stage.
Quotable quote: “We need Brexit for grown-ups and we need to be talking about the big issues.”
The Working-Class Welshman: Stephen Crabb
Who? Currently Work & Pensions Secretary, a job he was appointed to when Iain Duncan Smith resigned earlier this year, Crabb’s working-class roots have shaped his political outlook. Raised on a council estate, the MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, 43, believes that work is the only way out of poverty, and speaks about his experience of both his parents depending on welfare. Crabb and his two brothers were brought up by their mother, who separated from their violent father when Crabb was eight. A Welshman and Welsh MP, he has also served as Secretary of State for Wales from 2014, having been a junior minister in the Wales Office for two years.
Support base: Crabb is running on a joint ticket with the current Business Secretary Sajid Javid, who would be the Chancellor to his PM. This bolsters the One Nation Tory tone of his bid – Javid is from a working-class Muslim family in Rochdale and his father was a bus driver. Like Crabb, he backed Remain (though he is thought privately to be eurosceptic, and has since said “We are all Brexiteers now”). Other backers include Edward Timpson, Chloe Smith, Chris Skidmore, Johnny Mercer, and other MPs aligned to the more “compassionate Conservative” side of things.
Pros: The anti-Bullingdon choice. Also his statement that controlling immigration is a “red line” will play well with his party, and Brexiters suspicious of having a Remainer like him in charge.
Cons: Crabb, a Christian, has a controversial voting record that screams social conservatism. He voted against same-sex marriage, and has aligned himself with tightening rules on abortion. He has also been forced to deny that he believes in a “gay cure” – he says this is a lie spread by his opponents. But he now says he is happy with the outcome of the gay marriage vote.
Pitch to the party: The blue-collar candidate. At the launch of his bid, Crabb said, “nothing was handed to me on a plate”, and emphasised his state education, differentiating himself from others at the top of the party (this was most poignant when Old Etonian Boris Johnson was in the running). This is in spite of his rather conventional “white-collar” route into politics, which started with him being the parliamentary intern for a Christian advocacy group.
Quotable quote: “There are different ways you can become a household name, I’m doing it the right way hopefully.”