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28 March 2019

Who will succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister? Runners and riders for the Tory leadership

Conservative MPs expect a crowded field.

By Patrick Maguire

Once Theresa May stands down as Conservative leader, the will of her party is settled on only one thing about the contest that will follow: it cannot be a coronation. 

Burned by the consequences of letting Theresa May win by acclamation in 2016, Tory MPs anticipate that the race to succeed her will at least begin with a crowded field. The party is terminally divided, with no clear, unifying favourite. 

For the generation currently in cabinet – or just out of it – a leadership election this year could be their last shot at attaining cabinet office, or otherwise prolonging their time at the top table. Both camps in the party’s war over the EU will see it as an existential battle. 

Here the NS brings you the runners and riders spoken of by Conservative MPs as likely candidates.

Jeremy Hunt, MP for South West Surrey and Foreign Secretary

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One of the early favourites. Surviving nearly six years as health secretary – the longest tenure at the department ever – has earned him the respect of colleagues, many of whom say he is the candidate who most looks like a prime minister. Widely assumed to have been destined for demotion or the sack in January 2018, his stock rose after he demanded – and won – a new £384m-a-week funding settlement for the NHS in July. Could be hobbled, however, by a reputation for political dilettantism: having backed Remain in 2016 and publicly flirted with running as the candidate of a second referendum in the ensuing leadership race, he has since remade himself as a born-again Leaver. Said the UK could “survive and prosper” in a no-deal scenario last August, but sources close to him deny reports that he would run as the candidate of “managed no deal”. Has since sought to 

Sajid Javid, MP for Bromsgrove and Home Secretary

The other frontrunner. A former investment banker, he beat Ruth Davidson for selection to the safe seat of Bromsgrove in 2010 and was subsequently groomed for high office by George Osborne, serving as culture and then business secretary. His career appeared to have stalled, however, after the EU referendum – he backed Remain, despite cultivating a reputation as a Eurosceptic – and the defenestration of his mentor. Oversaw the government’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire as communities secretary, before replacing Amber Rudd at the Home Office in April.

Colleagues have been struck by his willingness to take a sledgehammer to a department still largely cast in Theresa May’s image: he ditched her hostile environment approach to immigration and moved to legalise medicinal cannabis. His iconoclastic streak extends to the economy, where his personal philosophy is one of bulldozing libertarianism. A fan of Ayn Rand, he is known to re-read The Fountainhead every year. Much is made of his backstory – as the son of a Pakistani bus driver, he would be Britain’s first BAME prime minister – but detractors point to a thin list of tangible achievements in office. Some MPs cast aspersions about his interpersonal skills, however.

Boris Johnson, MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and former foreign secretary

The received wisdom dictates that Johnson, who resigned from government in order to oppose the Prime Minister’s Brexit plans last July but has since backed the Withdrawal Agreement, would win comfortably among the membership should he reach the final two of a leadership contest. The former foreign secretary’s problem, however, is getting there, as his early exit from the last leadership contest demonstrates.

The breadth and depth of enmity towards Johnson has only grown in the two years that have passed since, and his personal following remains relatively small (though it has grown since his resignation). An unedifying and characteristically gaffe-strewn spell at the Foreign Office seemed to have diminished his appeal, and several MPs have said they would resign the Conservative whip if he became leader. Could be hobbled by a split Leave vote but has received a string of endorsements from Tory MPs of late, and could yet win the imprimatur of the DUP, with whom he has held talks.

Amber Rudd, MP for Hastings and Rye and Work and Pensions Secretary

The Cameroon. Marked out for stardom in the 2010 parliament and emerged as an articulate advocate for Remain in the EU referendum campaign. A promotion from energy secretary to the Home Office followed, but she was forced to resign over the Windrush scandal, having denied being aware of deportation targets that her office was in fact aware of. Returned to cabinet in November, replacing Esther McVey at the Department for Work and Pensions, having come out for a second referendum to avert no deal in the meantime.  

Having pinned her colours with such enthusiasm to the mast of continuity Remain, it looks unlikely that she would be able to win a vote of the Conservative grassroots – a fact she has herself acknowledged. Complicating things further is her slim majority of just 346 votes over Labour, which could well necessitate her airlifting to a safer seat at the next election if she did run, which is unlikely. More likely to serve as “kingmaker” for another candidate.

Michael Gove, MP for Surrey Heath and Environment Secretary

The most senior Brexiteer to have remained loyal to May, Gove – if he chose to ran – would be one of the few candidates who could plausibly command support from a broad cross-section of MPs. He has urged colleagues to accept the deal currently on offer as a ticket to a harder Brexit in the future. The stance has inspired loathing among more doctrinaire Leavers but could convince a critical mass of those whose objective is to make sure the UK actually leaves the EU..

One of the few household names in the mix, but this is no asset: he retains an enduring public unpopularity from his time as education secretary. He has nonetheless turned his reforming zeal into a reliable generator of good publicity for the government at Defra and was a well-regarded justice secretary before his banishment to the backbenches by Theresa May. Known by colleagues as an incorrigible gossip, some have not forgiven his betrayal of Boris Johnson in 2016. He will prove a formidable force if he does run. Allies describe him as “wavering”.

David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden and former Brexit secretary

The maverick. Frequently floated as a caretaker replacement for the Prime Minister, the trajectory Davis’s career has taken since he made the transition from campaigning backbencher to cabinet minister in 2016 is likely to mean he has little chance of winning a leadership contest with a broad field, despite a loyal personal following. Ran for leader – and lost – in both 2001 and 2005. His best hope this time would be to pitch himself as an interim premier with a brief to deliver Brexit, though his insistence on a Canada-style deal and the presence of other Leavers in the field would make his path to victory almost impassable.

Dominic Raab, MP for Esher and Walton and former Brexit secretary

The libertarian. Long beloved of hipster Tories, Raab was until recently one of the nearly men of the 2010 intake – a perpetual rising star overlooked repeatedly for Cabinet Office. Having finally attained it as Brexit secretary, a role whose title obscured his lack of influence, he lasted just 138 days before resigning. One of the five co-authors of the neo-Thatcherite manifesto Britannia Unchained, he would be the most nakedly ideological leadership candidate and has advocated an Asian-style low-tax, low-regulation economy. A habitué of the Commons gym, colleagues have described him as prickly and impatient, and 2011 comments in which he argued that “feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots” have been a gift for Labour. He nonetheless has a strong chance of beating Johnson and Davis to serve as standard bearer for ERG MPs.

Penny Mordaunt, MP for Portsmouth North and International Development Secretary

The dark horse of the Brexiteers. One of the few faces of Vote Leave remaining in cabinet, which she joined after the resignation of Priti Patel last November. Mordaunt has somehow managed to avoid publicly backing or disavowing the Prime Minister’s Brexit plans, which could harm her appeal among her fellow Leavers. Since last November, however, she has had the benefit of a relatively low-risk, touchy-feely ministerial brief that has allowed her to burnish her liberal credentials and pick fights with May on emotive issues like equal marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Privately, colleagues have been known to express doubts about whether she has the intellectual capacity for the premiership and others are still uneasy about her role in the referendum campaign, during which she falsely claimed that Turkey was about to join the EU. Would be Britain’s first single prime minister since Edward Heath.

Esther McVey, MP for Tatton and former work and pensions Secretary

The unashamed right-winger. A former television presenter and protégé of Iain Duncan Smith, McVey rose to prominence in the 2010 parliament as the remorseless face of the government’s welfare cuts and a pugnacious spokesperson on the airwaves, attending cabinet as employment minister. Having lost the marginal of Wirral West to Labour in 2015, she returned in George Osborne’s old safe seat of Tatton last June and was quickly welcomed back into the government fold as deputy chief whip and then work and pensions secretary, the latter of which she quit last month. She signalled last week that she would consider a run if May fell, but lacks an obvious constituency of supporters. Considered frighteningly right wing even by the standards of the Conservative backbenches. MPs joke that her partner Philip Davies, the similarly strident MP for Shipley, would be installed in Downing Street as an éminence grise and “First Lady”.

Andrea Leadsom, MP for North Northamptonshire and Leader of the House of Commons

The comeback kid. Burst into the public conscienceness during the EU referendum campaign as one of Vote Leave’s doughtiest campaigners but crashed and burned in the subsequent leadership contest after she suggested having children made her a better-placed candidate for prime minister than Theresa May. A lacklustre stint as Environment Secretary in the prime minister’s first cabinet saw her demoted to Leader of the Commons, a role which, unexpectedly, has been her making. Won plaudits for her handling of the Westminster bullying and harassment scandal, as well as for her willingness to challenge John Bercow, and has offered organisation and leadership to Cabinet Brexiteers without being publicly disloyal to the prime minister. Remains scarred by the experience of her last run, however, and friends say she is still unsure of whether to take the risk again.

Liz Truss, MP for South West Norfolk and Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The free marketeer. Another Britannia Unchained co-author, she was constant presence in the cabinets of Cameron and May, her career appeared to be on the wane when she was demoted to number two at the Treasury; but she has enjoyed something of a renaissance at the Tory grassroots, where she has cast herself as the champion of the gig economy. Fond of giving stump speeches on the innate capitalism of young people, who she describes as “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”. Her partisan pugnacity – and has won her many admirers in the 2017 intake of Conservative MPs, and will pitch herself as the champion of untrammelled markets and deregulation. Could be underpriced.

Matt Hancock, MP for West Suffolk and Health Secretary

Osborne 2.0? A protege of the former Chancellor, Hancock had appeared destined for political obscurity after May arrived in Downing Street in 2016. Surprisingly, however, he accepted a demotion to what many considered a backwater brief in Digital Minister with alacrity, winning a promotion to full Cabinet rank as Culture Secretary and then to Health, where he has avoided the sort of rolling media crises that marred his predecessor’s seven years in post. Friends say the reliable media performer, who has just turned 40, believes this race is a cycle too early. But colleagues nonetheless say he could emerge as a unity candidate and both of his Cabinet briefs have offered the capacity to court MPs via what allies describe as pork barrel politics. Has urged the party to broaden its appeal, arguing that Tories must sound as if they like the country they seek to govern. 

Mark Harper, MP for the Forest of Dean and former chief whip

The sleeper hit. A mainstay in the governments of David Cameron – under whom he served as chief whip – Harper, who backed Remain in 2016, has argued for a harder Brexit than most of his classmates and has been sounding out backbenchers ahead of a tilt at the leadership. Lacks public recognition but respected by colleagues. Patrick McLoughlin, another former chief whip, is canvassing support on his behalf. Could get further than bigger names.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset and chairman of the European Research Group

The Tory Corbyn. Beloved of the grassroots but lacking in anything close to government experience, he has repeatedly denied that he is interested in the job, most often citing the demands of his six children. More likely to serve as a kingmaker for either Johnson or Davis, both of whom he has suggested would make strong candidates.

Justine Greening, MP for Putney and former education secretary

The mutineer. Resigned from cabinet in January 2018 after refusing to move to the Department for Work and Pensions in a reshuffle, and subsequently became the first member of a May cabinet to endorse a second EU referendum. Comprehensively educated in Rotherham, her campaigning on social mobility gives her an obvious and attractive policy platform beyond Brexit, which is more than can be said for some others. Like Rudd, however, her stance on Europe – and support for a second referendum – limits her natural constituency constituency to single figures. Would be the first British prime minister to have a same-sex partner in office but at this point is more likely to leave the party than lead it. 

Gavin Williamson, MP for South Staffordshire and Defence Secretary

The amateur Machiavel. Williamson saw out David Cameron’s premiership at his right hand as parliamentary private secretary before managing Theresa May’s campaign for the leadership. A stint as chief whip followed – Tory MPs remember it with increasing fondness as a minority government takes its toll on morale – before his unexpected promotion to the Ministry of Defence after the resignation of Michael Fallon. Some speculated that he could emulate Edward Heath’s journey from the Whips’ Office to Downing Street, but his star has faded under scrutiny. Has repeatedly clashed with Philip Hammond over funding for the armed forces. Sniffier colleagues have been known to disparage his reedy Yorkshire accent and past life as a fireplace salesman. However, he remains close to – and trusted by – the ten DUP MPs, which could prove an attractive selling point after events in recent weeks.

James Cleverly, MP for Braintree and Brexit minister 

The party man. A popular figure among the Tory grassroots and loyalist Brexiteer who won promotion to ministerial office earlier this month, he has made no secret of his desire to one day run for the premiership. His lack of ministerial experience and obvious route beyond the opening rounds of a sudden contest to succeed May nonetheless makes a serious candidacy this time a non-starter. Could nonetheless run to stake a claim to a big job but is more likely to endorse Johnson, who he backed in 2016.

Philip Lee, MP for Bracknell and former health minister

The outsider. As leader of the Tory campaign for a second referendum – the cause over which he resigned from government last year – the sometime ally of Theresa May could, at most, count on the support of eight MPs. Is nonetheless known to be considering a run.