New Times,
New Thinking.

Who will replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader?

By resigning fast while other cabinet ministers cowered, Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak have pushed themselves to the front of the queue.

By Andrew Marr

This should be less a day of glee than of quiet, determined optimism. Let’s be realistic. All around the country, quiet, reasonable people will be capering with delight, uncorking bottles at unreasonable hours and shrieking into their mobiles. Of course. Obviously. We are being liberated from a shameful episode in our public life – it wasn’t an era or an epoch – and the stench can now be wafted away.

But glee is a short-lived thing. Much more important is the job ahead. Whoever the Tory party chooses now will oversee a more normal, rules-based and less vindictive administration. That matters so much. All around the world, but particularly across Europe, foreign leaders will be keen to hear more about the latest in London and see whether they can rebuild relations with the UK.

The opportunities are enormous. For the opposition, there has never been a better time to plan for a thorough overhaul of the creaking, twine-and-duct-tape British political system, with its comparative lack of checks and balances, its excessive secrecy and its grotesque sentimentality about the mother of parliaments. 

Now we know how easily it can be vandalised. For a century, constitutional reformers have been told that ordinary voters don’t give a monkeys. This year, I bet they do.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s resignation won’t end the Conservative’s brand problems]

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But of course there are much more immediate challenges, with the cost of living or can’t-pay-my-bills crisis at the head of the list. Whoever takes over next (and more of that in a moment) will need to fashion and sell a coherent tax and pay policy for an age of inflation we barely understand. If they are bold, they will tear up the plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol, the trade border in the Irish Sea, and begin repairing relations with our European neighbours.

This will be, in effect, a new government with a two-year life. Now of course this is grossly unfair, particularly on the opposition parties. The Conservatives have been in power for a dozen years and the composition of whatever the new government is will include politicians responsible for what happened under David Cameron and Theresa May, never mind Boris Johnson. Even so, a new face at the top and a new cabinet will feel different to the majority of voters.

So who might that new face be? The endorsement of the New Statesman is perhaps a lethal gift: we are not any kind of Conservative organ. But it is common sense to say that Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak, by resigning fast and provoking this crisis when other cabinet ministers cowered, have pushed themselves to the front of the queue. If they collaborated they would probably be unstoppable.

Jeremy Hunt is a thoroughly decent centrist Tory of high personal morals and a refreshingly open outlook. He, along with his non-Johnson-contaminated colleague Tom Tugendhat, would probably appeal most to uncommitted Middle Britain. But it is hard to see the right of the Conservative party going for them; the polling of ordinary party members, who choose the leader in a final run-off, is not propitious.

We know Steve Baker, the focused, organisationally brilliant Christian right winger is likely to run. But he has not been a minister. Given his skills, all the candidates would offer him any job required to get him on side. We must hope, since it is time to clean the stables, that none of the divisive, culture-warrior nationalist types make it. But who knows? Given the wide-open nature of the contest, the safest bet is “don’t bet” because the winner will be a surprise.

And all of this assumes that there will be a reasonably civilised, calm and orderly transition of power. But that is now up to Johnson more than anyone else. And though it would further stain his reputation, he may not be able to stop himself from savaging his critics and driving the party, even now, into a self-destructive civil war. One of those ever-generous Tory donors would do Britain a service by buying him, Carrie and the kids a whacking big villa in the Caribbean.

I’d be surprised if we saw a general election before early 2024. As I have argued before, the planned constituency boundary changes at the end of next year will give the Tories such a useful clutch of seats that they would have to have very strong reasons to disregard that, particularly as the polls tighten. Now, too, a new leader will want to impose his or her personality and authority and will need time to do that. In general, the Tories need a lot less hurtle and drama for a while.

But the opposition parties should now be on full-scale battle-alert. The Conservative Party has occasionally been brilliant at refashioning its public face even while in office. Think of the transition from Margaret Thatcher to John Major in 1990. 

Keir Starmer, after his best performance at Prime Minister’s Questions so far, can take some of the credit for the fall of Boris Johnson, with its unreliable echoes of the fall of Thatcher. 

But if I were Team Starmer, it is that 1992 election, a full 30 years ago, that I would now be focusing on. No need to be spooked. But a huge amount of policy work, selling and inspiration lies ahead to ensure that the story isn’t repeated. No glee. Plenty of optimism.

[See also: Who is the frontrunner for the Tory leadership?]

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