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6 October 2017updated 08 Oct 2017 10:29am

Who will replace Theresa May? The runners and riders for Conservative leader

If the Tories have a leadership contest, here’s who is in the running to be the next Prime Minister.

By New Statesman


Who everyone is talking about:

David Davis

The 68-year-old cabinet minister, charged with leading Brexit negotiations, has previously presented himself as a “safe pair of hands”. Beaten to the Tory leadership in 2005, by David Cameron, he clearly once had the ambition to lead his party. Does he still? In any contest in the near future, Davis has to be an early favourite for the Brexiteer vote – he offers the same “big beast” feeling as Boris Johnson, but with fewer glib remarks about Yemenis and dead bodies in Sirte.

However, his record is still pocked by a few eccentricities, in Tory terms: he once resigned, prompting a by-election, over the detention of terror suspects. (Still, he overcame his civil libertarian principles to serve under the instinctively authoritarian May.) He was also a rare Conservative critic of tuition fees. If he wins, it will be under the May Principle – as the candidate whom fewest people find ideologically and personally unbearable.

Amber Rudd

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Two things stand in the way of Rudd’s leadership bid: her vote to Remain, and her tiny majority in Hastings and Rye. The second of those, oddly, is easier to brush aside; there has already been talk of her doing a “chicken run” into a nearby safer seat, to avoid the prospect of Labour flooding her ultra-marginal constituency with activists at the next general election.

The home secretary, 54, came out of conference season looking dignified and grown-up. Unlike last year, she did not attract attention with a conspicuously anti-migrant stance, and she was caught in a widely shared clip urging Johnson to stand up and applaud May when the prime minister needed a coughing break.

Unfortunately for her, though, even if she made it past the Eurosceptic section of the parliamentary party, the activist base is heavily pro-Brexit. Is there anything she can do to convince them she’s on their side?

Boris Johnson

Johnson, a Brexiteer by political expediency, might be the party members’ favourite to succeed May but he’s not popular among his fellow Tory MPs. A case in point was how his leadership bid collapsed last year, after his backer Michael Gove betrayed him and decided to run, taking most of his support from the parliamentary party.

The troublemaking wannabe prime minister plagued Cameron’s leadership as well as May’s, with his untouchable ability to say what he pleases. However, even sympathetic Tories appeared exasperated by his shenanigans during the party’s conference this year. He made tasteless remarks about Libya (saying they’ll have to “clear the dead bodies away” to build the next Dubai) the night before May’s conference speech, highlighting her inability to sack him yet again.

Having set out his own “red lines” for Brexit (which differed from May’s plan), written a 4,000-word piece about how he’d negotiate it days before her Florence speech, and stated his off-message views on public sector pay, Johnson has both crassly undermined May’s authority and riled the cabinet by straying from his brief. Not a sensible strategy, given he will have to make it through an MPs’ ballot before reaching his sizeable fanbase in the membership to be voted leader.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

A charming period piece, or an over-indulged fossil? It depends on your perspective. The North East Somerset MP’s paleoconservative views put him well to the right of public opinion on a raft of issues and make him an anathema to many Conservative MPs. If an author had written his biography – aristocratic family, education at Eton, career in finance – they might have been told it was too on-the-nose. 

But Rees-Mogg is packing out rooms with Conservative party members who like his straight-talking authenticity and believe it may be the best antidote to Jeremy Corbyn.

Highly unlikely to be allowed to progress to the final round of the contest by Conservative MPs, he may yet squeak through a divided field. 

Ruth Davidson

Funny, talented, likeable and bossing it for the Tories in Scotland, the Scottish Conservative leader is second favourite among party members to succeed May. She has a very human leadership style, and the fact that she’s a gay woman adds to her appeal as the next leader. And she’s a kick-boxing, Territorial Army-trained Christian from a working-class background, to boot.

The only problem is – she’s not an MP. And has repeatedly said she has no desire to run for a Westminster seat.

Dominic Raab

The MP for Esher and Walton has been talked of as a leader-in-waiting almost since he was first elected in 2010. A politician of impeccable Thatcherite credentials who is seen as one of the right’s biggest brains, his career stalled under Cameron, harming his chances.

One ally despaired recently that it was “ludicrous that Liz Truss is in the cabinet while Raab is a mere minister”. Still, the lack of equivalent wattage on the right may yet mean he comes out on top. He may do less well outside of the Tory tribe, having once declared that feminists were the “real bigots”.

Priti Patel

One of five of Cameron’s cabinet ministers to come out for Leave, Patel thrust herself back into leadership contention with an effective speech at party conference. As far as political positioning goes, the speech was about as subtle as a late night “What u up to? x” text to an ex, but it did the job. 

Her tenure at the Department for International Development has made her few friends among the NGOs, but has strengthened her credentials on the Conservative right.

With other candidates of the right detonating (Johnson) or stalled lower down the ministerial ladder (Raab), Patel could yet emerge as the most well-placed of the Brexiteers.

Dark horses:

Philip Hammond

The 61-year-old Chancellor has long been regarded as a potential “caretaker leader”: a dull but efficient technocrat. Hammond is one of the cabinet’s most experienced members, having previously served as foreign secretary and defence secretary.

His reputation, however, was badly wounded by his 2017 Budget U-turn over National Insurance (the fastest in recent history) and he was humiliatingly sidelined during the general election. From the Treasury, Hammond has also championed a softer Brexit, earning him the opprobrium of Brexiteer MPs.

His conference speech, which was long on complaints but short on solutions, did not revive his falling stock. For Remainers, Home Secretary Rudd is now the candidate of choice.

Andrea Leadsom

The Commons leader and arch-Brexiteer was the surprise contender of the 2017 Tory leadership election. Leadsom, 54, defeated the more experienced Gove and Liam Fox to make the members’ ballot with the backing of 84 MPs.

But in a Times interview she suggested that her motherhood gave her a superior perspective to the childless May, and she was forced to withdraw following outrage from MPs.

This experience, however, has not dissuaded Leadsom. Asked during the Conservative conference if she could rule out a bid to succeed May, she replied: “I am not speculating about what happens in the future. Anything can happen.”

Leadsom is thought by MPs to be the likeliest cabinet minister to resign, following her private criticism of May’s recent Florence speech on Brexit. The former environment secretary has maintained that the UK should “take back control” of its “money, borders and laws” when it leaves the EU in 2019, despite the proposed transition period.

Asked by the New Statesman during a fringe meeting whether she would resign over her views, Leadsom replied: “In terms of myself, and can I stay in the cabinet, it’s absolutely clear, I shall be in the cabinet just as long as the Prime Minister wants me to be – and I can also tell you that the same is true of Boris [Johnson].”

Damian Green

May’s loyal right-hand man, Green has shown class and resilience as deputy leader. But as a Remainer, the former work and pensions secretary would have to beat Rudd to being the pro-Europe candidate. That would be unlikely to happen, given Rudd has more of an appeal among that section of the party, and also considering his closeness to the beleaguered incumbent – he went to university with May and was also a minister in her Home Office.

Sajid Javid

Javid’s political ascent was once regarded as inevitable. The son of a Pakistani bus driver appeared the ideal candidate for a party viewed as too white and too posh. But the 47-year-old former investment banker struggled to distinguish himself in ministerial office. His media manner was regarded as too harsh and robotic, and his libertarian views placed him outside the Conservative mainstream. 

During the EU referendum campaign, the then-business secretary alienated both sides by offering lukewarm support for Remain. He offended Brexiteers who had assumed that the Eurosceptic would vote Leave, and irritated Remainers by making the weakest possible endorsement of their cause. 

“With a heavy heart and no enthusiasm, I shall be voting for the UK to remain a member of the European Union,” Javid wrote in the Mail on Sunday. “As I have said before, a vote to leave the EU is not something I am afraid of.”

In the 2016 leadership contest, he stood on a joint ticket with Stephen Crabb, who finished fourth after winning the support of just 34 MPs (Javid was slated to become Chancellor). 

But since becoming communities secretary under May, the Ayn Rand devotee has sought to reinvent himself. He has become a champion of mass housebuilding and has announced a comprehensive review of social housing following the Grenfell tragedy. But his ambiguous status in the defining Tory divide – Remain vs Leave – remains a significant hindrance. 

Rory Stewart

The Penrith and the Border MP worked as a career diplomat, including a stint as governor of British-controlled Iraq before becoming an MP in 2010. Stewart is one of the most thoughtful Conservative politicians. He said to be is sounding out donors and MPs about a potential run, but with most of the institutional support on the Tory left behind Rudd, he may struggle to make an impact.

Phillip Lee

The justice minister and former GP, grammar school-educated Dr Phillip Lee has represented the Bracknell constituency since 2010. But he has only recently started being touted as a potential leadership challenger, partly because of his recent interventions and warnings about the party’s future. He wrote on the eve of the gathering in the Guardian about their “trust problem”: “Most people do not believe that Conservatives are “on their side”. This is a wake-up call.”

He opposed Brexit, and said at party conference that he wants the Tories to be “much, much more than the Brexit party”. This, as well as his fairly low profile, could make him struggle with winning over the membership.


James Cleverly

If you want banter, this Braintree backbencher is your man. Since being elected in 2015, Cleverly has carved out a niche as the candidate of the Jeremy Clarkson strain of conservatism: laddish, pugnacious and jokey.

The 48-year-old once called Lib Dem Simon Hughes “a dick” (he apologised) and soon after being elected, he gave a radio interview in which he admitted that he had smoked weed and watched internet porn. (When the interview made the news, he tweeted: “Shorter headline for you. ‘James Cleverly was once 20’.”) More pertinently to his political career, he added that he would vote to leave the EU.

Born in Lewisham to a British father and a mother from Sierra Leone, he attended a private school in the borough and served in the British Army. Married with two sons, he sits on a healthy 18,422 majority in his Essex seat – but although he has said he “would love to be” Prime Minister one day, his lack of frontbench experience is currently a stumbling block.

Tom Tugendhat

The 2015-intake MP for Tonbridge and Malling is the person to mention as next Tory leader if you want to sound clever at dinner parties. Commentators and party insiders are discussing the new chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and former army officer’s talent and prospects, and the man himself has admitted he wants to be Prime Minister.

“Of course,” he replied when asked. “I bought a ticket so why wouldn’t I want to win the lottery?”, adding that it would be “a huge privilege to serve my country in any way I possibly could”.

With Tugendhat having voted Remain and never served on the frontbench, this could be a bit of a case of the punditry echo chamber inflating someone beyond their support. Members won’t have heard of him, and his support among MPs is hard to ascertain. But then again, Cameron had only had a few months in a shadow frontbench role before running for leader in 2005.

Who no one is talking about:

Michael Gove

Michael Gove has no intention of running. Michael Gove thinks the idea of him being leader is absurd. Michael Gove has been conspicuously supportive of Boris Johnson (for example, by being the only senior cabinet member to attend his conference speech). Michael Gove will definitely not crack under the pressure of resisting his huge ambition and mount a kamikaze bid of his own. Oh no. Not again.

Grant Shapps

OK, people are talking about him, but only in the sense of how ridiculous and inappropriate a figure he is for leading today’s attempted coup against May. Party chairman under Cameron, Shapps had to resign in 2015 following the bullying scandal among young Conservative activists. He lost credibility when he was found out for having a second job while an MP, using pseudonyms such as “Michael Green” to conduct his business. Cue jokes about how many names are real among the 30 he claims are behind his coup.