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16 September 2022

The next Tory leadership contest has already begun

Those hoping to succeed Liz Truss know that they have to start planning now.

By John Oxley

It is said that when a Roman general rode in triumph, a slave stood behind them whispering “memento mori” – remember you will die. That concept – in victory and life lie death and decay – became a common one in Western art. It is unlikely that Liz Truss will dwell on it much when the unexpected whirlwind of her first weeks in office subsides – even having witnessed the natural succession of power with the death of the Queen. But even if an incoming prime minister doesn’t realise the contest to replace them has begun, their likely successors will.

No matter how successful a PM, one day their term will end. Most likely it will come in dejection and rejection – turfed out by the electorate (John Major, Gordon Brown) or their own party (Boris Johnson, Theresa May, etc). A prime minister’s fortunes ebb and flow, but they never escape gravity. From the moment they kiss the monarch’s hands, everyone knows that they will exit, eventually. 

For Truss, there are three scenarios that would see her ousted from office. The first is defenestration before the next election. It seems a remote possibility. The Tory backbenchers are not nearly as ruthless as some make out, and even though Truss did not win the backing of most MPs, they are unlikely to indulge in fratricidal bloodletting this side of 2024.

An alternative is that, after winning the next election, she secures a further five years in office. With some trials and tribulations, she makes it through and gets to walk away at a time of her choosing, or perhaps after losing the 2029 election. This feels an uphill battle with the Tories languishing in the polls and is so remote (in both time and probability) that it barely bears thinking about.  

By far the most likely scenario is that at some point in 2024 Truss calls an election (the last possible date is a very unappealing 24 January 2025) and loses. Within days of the result she resigns, and the competition to replace her kicks off properly. It’s a scenario any shrewd successor will be planning for already.  

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The next Tory leadership contest will take place in very different circumstances to the last three. The party would be in opposition for the first time in 14 years. It would have suffered a very poor election night, losing 100 seats on a good night, maybe 200 on a bad one. It’s hard to underestimate the effect this will have on the party.

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Even in the median performance scenario, the party will lose not just the Red Wall, but seats in the south that it has held for decades. Cabinet ministers will likely fall, and Tory MPs will return to Westminster to find some of their dearest colleagues missing. For most MPs, it will be the first time they’ve experienced the party going backwards. Few current Conservative MPs were in the Commons in 1997, and many of them will stand down before the next election. The rest have only been combatants in elections where the Tories gained seats or formed governments. They’ve only ever come back from the count with a spring in their step. This time, instead, they will face the psychological blow of being blasted from power, with a party looking for answers and scapegoats.  

The remaining MPs who will vote for their next leader will be the rump of Tory seats, a group smaller in number and more homogeneous in outlook than as is the case when the leadership contests takes place while the party is in government (as the previous three have). Equally, they will be looking for a leader of the opposition, not a PM – someone who can build up a bruised party rather than run a government from day one. Most of all, the contest will be coloured by why they think they lost an election.  

Parties that have just lost tend to look inwards, thinking that defeat came from not being authentic to their base. In the 2000s, this pulled the Tories to a series of Eurosceptic leaders, before embracing the modernisation manifesto of David Cameron. However, Truss has already signalled that she intends to govern emphatically to the right, by slashing taxes and regulation and ignoring the moderates in the party. The further to the right she goes, the less space there will be for leadership hopefuls to play to the party base in the contest to replace her, and the more likely a lurch centre-wards in the next leadership contest becomes. 

Equally, a smart party will realise that looking forward is more useful than looking back. By the time 2029 rolls around, Brexit will be as distant a memory as Major was in 2010. The youngest voters will not even remember the referendum and a new political generation will be on the scene. The next leadership contest should be about the future rather than the past.

For the next two years, putative candidates will try to frame their vision. Outward ambition is unappealing, but the next leadership contest will bubble along under the surface. Outside of the Truss tent, backbenchers such as Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak will play their cards for an alternative approach without falling into open rebellion. They will hope that even if they cannot be kings, they could be kingmakers in the post-electoral chaos.  

Within Truss appointees, the obvious contenders are Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch. Both are from a younger generation of MPs; they have the time to wait for government in 2029. They made strides forward in this year’s contest without getting far enough to become has-beens. Representing different images of the party, they’d be a strong final pair in 2024, and will be using the next couple of years to bolster their chances.  

Johnson remains a wildcard. As he stews on the backbenches, he may plot a return. His wide ambitious streak demands it, but he may find it more fun and more lucrative to be the king over the water, especially compared with the leader of the opposition role. His parliamentary colleagues’ relationship was more transactional than truly affectionate, and it’s hard to know in two years’ time whether he’ll be seen as the saviour or the start of the decline.

Whoever emerges from the fray, they will be laying the groundwork now. Expect to see the potential successors polishing their newspaper columns and touring the country for constituency dinners. They will be courting their credentials both in parliament and among party members, hoping to be in the best position when the ball comes lose. However Truss ends her leadership, a successor will emerge – and then the plotting will begin anew.

[See also: Civil service sackings set a dangerous precedent]

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