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Inside the shadow Tory leadership election

Who will replace Rishi Sunak and how will they deal with Nigel Farage and Reform?

By Rachel Cunliffe

The board is set, the pieces are moving. So says Gandalf in the The Return of the King, the final instalment of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, ahead of a battle towards which the entire narrative has been gradually building.

The battle for the leadership of the Conservative Party will begin officially in five days’ time, once Labour’s victory has been confirmed and Rishi Sunak has gone to Buckingham Palace to offer his resignation to the King.

But the board of that battle is already set – and the pieces are most definitely moving.

Whoever wins will inherit a party in crisis, at a lowest ebb (if the polls are to be believed) than at virtually any point in its illustrious history. The Tories will find themselves not just desperately short of MPs, but of everything else needed for a party to function properly: donations, activists, strong local associations, new ideas, energy, identity. They will be faced with the existential challenge of first keeping the party alive and then beginning the long, hard process of rebuilding it.

Given the scale of the task ahead, it’s a wonder anyone wants the job at all. Of course, no one has yet declared their intention to run. But as polling day draws closer, the trends and questions that will shape the debate are becoming apparent.

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First, the contenders. It has long been understood that the race to succeed Sunak will be defined by which Tory MPs keep their seats in order to vote. But with Conservative support cratering well below even the worst expectations of a few months ago, this view no longer holds. Now, the race to succeed Sunak will be defined by which Tory MPs keep their seats in order to stand.

Many of those considered proto-contenders in the shadow leadership race are now facing struggles in their own constituencies, with recent MRP polls suggesting there are far fewer “safe” Conservative seats than previously thought.

Penny Mordaunt, the moderate sword-carrier and Leader of the House of Commons, who came third in the contest of summer 2022, is in real trouble in her Portsmouth North seat. So is former-Sunak-ally-turned-right-wing-firebrand Robert Jenrick in Newark.

At the slightly safer end of the spectrum, former home secretary Suella Braverman’s newly drawn constituency of Fareham and Waterlooville looks a bit more secure, but still not exactly safe. The same goes for current home secretary James Cleverly’s in Braintree. (Cleverly, whose wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, has said he does not currently intend to stand, but allies have told me they are urging him to reconsider and it is understood he will probably run.) One Nation Tories casting around for alternatives if Mordaunt does lose her seat might take comfort in centrist Tom Tugendhat’s relative safety in Tonbridge.

Meanwhile, front-runner Kemi Badenoch has been helped in North West Essex by the absence of a Reform opponent (the candidate dropped out of the race after past comments emerged of him urging voters to back the BNP) and is still seen by most as the person to beat. But an unexpected challenger has shot up the odds in the form of former home secretary Priti Patel: darling of the Boris Johnson Brexit era, from the Tory stronghold of Witham.

Depending on who survives on 5 July, other possibilities could yet emerge. Recently, the name of Health Secretary Victoria Atkins, one of the least prominent but most secure cabinet members, has been bandied around – a sign of desperation from the moderates, perhaps. And arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker is expected to lose his Wycombe seat, but has announced that he will stand if he retains it.

Then there is the wildcard option, with a leader who is not a Tory MP. David Cameron and David Frost, both in the Lords, are sometimes mentioned wistfully in Tory circles, while a small but passionate faction continues to agitate for the return of Boris Johnson. But this would require a change in the Conservative Party’s constitution – so for now, let’s work on the basis of the existing rules.

The first challenge for any would-be leader is retaining their seat. The second is building a powerbase within whatever remains of the parliamentary party and the membership with a persuasive pitch for how to rebuild it.

If the leadership contest is run according to the usual rules (with the exception of October 2022, when Sunak took over from Truss), Tory MPs will get the chance to whittle down the contenders to a final two, who will then face party members in a run-off.

With estimates for the number of Conservative seats veering wildly, from the relatively buoyant 155 to the utterly existential 53, there are simply too many unknowns to try to deduce where the balance of power will lie. Various models suggest a fairly even split between constituencies whose MPs backed Liz Truss in 2022 and those who backed Sunak. But even that division is now just one small part of the debate.

Leadership contests, I was told by a former prime ministerial adviser who has been involved with several, tend to hinge on a central binary. Sometimes this is a question of (relative) left vs right, as with Iain Duncan Smith and Ken Clarke in 2001, or David Cameron and David Davis in 2005. But that hasn’t been the main dividing line recently. When Boris Johnson took on Jeremy Hunt in 2019, the key issue was Brexit (on many metrics, fiscally cautious Hunt was to the right of Johnson’s boosterism). Sunak and Truss, meanwhile, both claimed to be the heir to Thatcher, while offering worldviews that could be described at best as realism vs fantasy, respectively.

In this contest, it is already clear what the central question will be: how should the Conservative Party react to Nigel Farage and the threat of Reform?

Even in the best-case seat scenario, Reform will have caused significant damage to the Tories, splitting the right-wing vote and turning previously safe Conservative seats into marginals. Farage himself will most likely finally have won his way into parliament, even if he is Reform’s only MP. Is the best strategy for a enfeebled Tory party to propose a merger and unite the right?

This is not an appealing prospect for most of the leadership hopefuls. On the moderate wing – Cleverly, Mordaunt, Tugendhat – an allegiance with Farage is an abhorrent prospect. Badenoch, whose pitch is that she could be the “sensible” right-winger who can bridge party divides, has explicitly ruled out working with him.

Of the right-wing contenders, Braverman alone has openly called for the Tories to accept Farage back (only for him publicly to reject her offer). The rest have been keen to keep him at a distance. Jenrick, who has been positioning himself as a more credible, less divisive option than Braverman from the right of the party, has previously said he would be happy to work with Farage, but is understood to have changed his position now that he is actively running against the Tories. Patel, who was captured at October’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester arm in arm with Farage, dancing to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, is taking a similar approach.

Considering the extent to which Farage has openly tried to destroy the Tory party, he is unlikely to find a warm welcome post-election, even among those who share many of his views. His open talk of a takeover, of running to be prime minister in 2029, has repulsed Conservative candidates.

But there is a difference between welcoming Farage and welcoming Farage’s voters. And here is where the big division of the leadership contest will be. One camp – Jenrick, Patel, Braverman, possibly Badenoch – will argue that the Tory party must listen to voters who abandoned it in favour of Reform, who want tougher action on immigration, an end to costly net zero measures, and for Britain to leave the European Court of Human Rights. The other will contend that elections are won from the centre, that Reform is toxic to moderate former Tory voters who have been tempted away by the Liberal Democrats, and that you cannot beat Farage by imitating him.

There are no easy answers. The latest Helm-Deltapoll survey of 2019 Conservative voters reveals the extent of the challenge: when asked what sort of direction the Tories should take in opposition, 43 per cent said a more right-wing approach, similar to Farage and Reform, while 41 per cent said a more centrist approach, similar to David Cameron. There is little consensus about the party’s future either among those likely to be left in the parliamentary party or among its voters.

Neutralising the threat of Reform may be the most pressing consideration, but it is not the only one. When I spoke to Conservative members and party strategists who will have a say in who becomes the next leader, key themes emerged.

One is around communication. It’s important to remember, I was told, that being opposition leader is a very different job from being prime minister. Understanding the media and being able to cultivate relationships with journalists (who are more interested in covering the party in power) and tell the story of the party’s renewal is vital. Cleverly and Mordaunt are known for their communication skills and ability to inspire; Badenoch, to put it mildly, is not. The Business and Trade Secretary built herself a reputation as a fierce anti-woke warrior, earning her a flock of dedicated fans (and the condemnation of actor David Tennant last week). But her prickliness with the press and, indeed, with some colleagues is considered a liability.

There is also the issue of re-energising the party at a grassroots level. Sunak first became an MP in 2015 and had little relationship with the Tory apparatus beforehand – he “fundamentally doesn’t understand the party”, I was recently told. People such as Cleverly and Patel, involved with the party for decades, will have a particular appeal. Enthusiasm and money are both currently in short supply. Two weeks into this election campaign, the Tories had managed to raise £290,000, just one tenth of what they had in 2019, and the coffers for rebuilding the party are close to empty. It has not gone unnoticed that, when Sunak pulled out of the party’s fundraising ball at Hurlingham Club on 20 June, it was Cleverly who stepped into the breach, charming donors by giving a winning speech and dancing until the early hours with his wife Susie, who organised the event.

Next comes the Boris Johnson quandary. While the former prime minister has few allies in the parliamentary party, among the membership it is a different matter. Conservative Democratic Organisation, founded by Johnson’s allies after he was forced to resign, has been agitating for grassroots members to have more of a say in how the party is run. They “believe it all went wrong after Boris was ousted”, I was told. Patel, who did not serve in the cabinets of either Sunak or Truss (and is therefore relatively untarnished), could well be the Johnson successor candidate.

Then there is the question of ideological renewal. Allies of Badenoch are keen to stress her “intellectual adeptness” – at the start of this year, she was described as someone invested in “crafting a version of Conservatism that works beyond factions”. Jenrick is also praised as being “someone who has really thought about the challenges we are facing” – unlike, for example, Braverman. On the One Nation side, Tugendhat’s intellect is described in similarly approving terms, while Mordaunt is rarely given such accolades. According to a critic of the Commons leader, “When Andrea Leadsom [who served as Mordaunt’s campaign manager in the 2022 leadership election] is the intellectual force behind your movement, we should all be worried.” Cleverly is considered capable and safe, but not an intellectual heavyweight. And Patel faces questions about her record in the Home Office (“She’d spend her entire leadership bid being asked about the death penalty”).

“The ‘safe pair of hands’ candidates are Cleverly and Tugendhat,” said a source in CCHQ (it is not a coincidence that both have military backgrounds). If the party decides it needs someone more “radical”, they said, look to Badenoch, Jenrick or Patel.

Several pointed out that many of the likely candidates come from minority backgrounds and would be making history. Patel and Braverman are British Indian women, Cleverly’s mother came from Sierra Leone, Badenoch was born to Nigerian parents and lived much of her childhood in Lagos. “Labour has only ever been led by a white man,” I was reminded, with the implication that it might make sense to choose a successor to Sunak who could highlight Labour’s lack of diverse leadership.

Before the election was called, I spoke to Daniel Finkelstein, the Conservative peer and adviser to past leaders John Major and William Hague, about what might happen after Sunak left office. Given the devastating impact of Reform, I asked, would there be pressure for the next leader to come from the anti-immigration, pro-Brexit, hard-line right of the party?

“That might be the character of the next Conservative leader,” he told me. “But that won’t be the character of the next Conservative government.”

The person who would succeed in rebuilding the party, he said, would be “someone not tarnished by old battles” – a fresh face not defined by which side they had come down on in the battle of Leave vs Remain, or Johnson and/or Truss vs Sunak.

It is hard to imagine that person emerging this time around, when the party is still reeling and trying to work out who to blame. (Another Tory grandee quipped: “Rishi’s people will blame Boris and Liz; Liz and Boris’s people will blame Rishi; and everybody will blame David Cameron.”) The likeliest outcome remains a run-off between one candidate broadly sympathetic to the Reform approach and one closer to the centre. Patel vs Cleverly (if he does decide to run, perhaps with the backing of Tugendhat) is the most frequently cited scenario, with Badenoch and Jenrick close behind and a shot for Mordaunt if she keeps her seat.

The conventional wisdom is that the membership tends to lie to the right of the parliamentary party, so we should expect the next leader to be someone who inclines in that direction, promising to counter the threat of Reform with a “back to basics” focus on slashing immigration, cutting tax and leaning into the culture wars.

But Conservative Party members are not always so predictable. Even if that is the outcome this time, the future of the party is still in play. Finkelstein reminded me of the 2005 leadership race, in which, after three election defeats and eight years in opposition, the membership opted for slick centrist David Cameron over the more traditional right-winger David Davis. What happened then? “The party really wanted to win,” he said.

[See also: Labour’s missions are no substitute for ideology]

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