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15 March 2022

Who could replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister?

Historically the Conservatives have waited for a clear front runner before replacing the PM.

By Tim Ross and Ben Walker

Just two years after winning an 80 seat majority for the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson’s latest and greatest crisis of authority makes it increasingly likely that he will be forced to resign before the next election – perhaps imminently.

As calls for Johnson’s resignation intensify following the string of Number 10 lockdown rule-breaking allegations, a few cabinet members have begun positioning themselves as potential candidates to replace him. 

Who could be the next Prime Minister? Here are the names the New Statesman believes are most likely to succeed.

Rishi Sunak

Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Notably absent during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the Chancellor showed his hand through an ambivalent tweet posted a full eight hours after Boris Johnson’s grilling by a furious house. 

Rishi Sunak is probably hoping to capitalise on his position as the most popular Conservative politician in the country. His name recognition among voters is high at around 95 per cent to 98 per cent, and a net favourability of plus three shows he is well-liked – although less so in the Tory marginal seats that matter.

Much of this public goodwill is likely to be due to his role in the pandemic response: both the furlough Job Support Scheme and Eat Out To Help Out restaurant subsidies were received positively. However, it’s unclear how long that shine will last. Sunak is at heart a pro-austerity Cameronite, and were he a Conservative leader in conventional times his lustre may fade rapidly.

Liz Truss

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The Foreign Secretary is an appealing choice for Conservative Party members, with a combative style reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher. However only 51 per cent of the country know who she is, and of those who do, more dislike than like her.

She has been been practising the subtle art of influence to build a stable of support among her colleagues and Tory party grassroots, through raising her social media profile, and meeting colleagues over drinks. It’s possible she may have greater appeal than Sunak among the “red wall” seats that turned blue in the last election, because she pushes the same pro-Brexit buttons as Johnson, even though she campaigned for Remain in the referendum.   

Michael Gove

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

The Housing Secretary takes the crowning position of being simultaneously well known by the public, and almost universally disliked. Between 90-95 per cent of people know who he is, but his net favourability is an astounding -40 per cent. He was a divisive education secretary, struggled as chief whip in David Cameron’s government, and his ratings have been on a downward slide ever since.

But don’t write him off yet. Michael Gove has stood for leadership twice before – notably betraying Johnson in 2016 by announcing his own leadership bid despite promises to stand with the now-PM, which prompted Johnson to withdraw from the field. The ambition to lead is unlikely to have faded over time. 

Gove is a significant figure in the cabinet and an energetic reformer, demonstrated by his recent bid to force housing developers to foot the bill for the cladding crisis. Were a leadership contest triggered, Gove may well throw his hat in the ring for a third time.

Jeremy Hunt

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Jeremy Hunt became an unpopular health secretary during the Cameron years before being promoted to foreign secretary when Johnson quit Theresa May’s cabinet in 2018. However Hunt reached the final two in the 2019 leadership contest, in which he stood against Johnson

Hunt is slightly less-well known than Gove among the public, but he has the advantage of a higher net favourability among voters of -25. Many in Westminster believe he could come back for a second attempt at the leadership, and he is talked about as someone who is gaining support on the back benches.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Photo by Toby Melville - WPA Pool / Getty Images

The darling of the right-wing Tories, Jacob Rees-Mogg has wanted to be prime minister since childhood. He’s an ardent supporter of Brexit, although his role in the Owen Paterson fiasco has tarnished his reputation. 

Contrary to what you may see on Twitter, he is only recognised by 78 per cent of the public – much lower than Sunak or Gove, and of those who have an opinion more of the public dislike him. However, he has considerable appeal to the Conservative members who would ultimately be making the decision if Johnson were to resign.

Will Boris Johnson go?

Despite the outrage against him, Boris Johnson’s position may be more secure than it seems – not because of his own inherent qualities, but because of the risk a leadership contest could pose to the Conservative Party.

In 2019, the party waited until there was a clear front runner – Johnson - before triggering a leadership contest. And in 2016, Theresa May very quickly emerged as the candidate to beat.

May actually won a confidence vote six months or so before she was eventually forced to resign in 2019. By that point the Tory MP’s own balloting revealed significant support for Boris Johnson.

In 2022 there is no clear front-runner for the leadership, so Conservative MPs may be reluctant to push out the incumbent until it's obvious who would take over. 

And, let’s not forget, Boris Johnson has been written off many times before. In 2018 he resigned from his cabinet role over May’s Brexit policy. While many wrote him off then, he returned as Prime Minister.  For all his failings Johnson is a gifted politician, a strong campaigner and a powerful communicator. Now, though, it’s his integrity and competence in government that is being questioned. Those are the things that really do matter to the Conservative MPs who will ultimately decide his fate.

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