Who will replace Theresa May as the next Prime Minister?
May has announced her resignation. But who will replace her?
Theresa May has bowed to the pressure and confirmed she will soon be off, clearing the way for ambitious Conservatives to compete in earnest to succeed her as party leader and Prime Minister. So who is waiting in the wings?
The man to beat
Boris Johnson’s earliest recorded ambition was to be “world king.” Until that position is created, he will settle for being Prime Minister. Michael Gove scuppered his first bid for the job last year at the eleventh hour, but Mr Johnson won’t let him stand in his way again.
Critics of Mr Johnson argue that he failed to distinguish himself as Foreign Secretary, but the Uxbridge MP’s flamboyance and unique charisma are already well-known. He has confirmed himself as the darling of the Tory grassroots with his vigorous fight against Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and wooed many Brexiteer MPs in the process.
His liberal personal beliefs mean he has been able to cosy up to the One Nation wing of the Tory party, which is headed by MPs like Amber Rudd, which suggests he could manoeuvre tactically to position himself as the man who can bring everyone back together behind a proudly pro-Brexit flag.
With the Tories facing a squeeze from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Jeremy Corbyn, some MPs are keen for someone who is a proven election-winner who can have the best chance to fight back from the off. The polls show they have that in the man who won the London Mayoralty twice, and led Vote Leave to victory.
But that doesn’t mean we can expect a Johnson coronation.
Mr Johnson would be the man to beat, a risky position to start off as in a Tory leadership race. Dominic Raab, who like the former Foreign Secretary quit Mrs May’s cabinet in protest over her Brexit concessions, is building up serious momentum, with his predecessor as Brexit Secretary David Davis already backing him. Jeremy Hunt, who has proven himself to be a political survivor after becoming the longest-serving health secretary and then being rewarded with the Foreign Office, has a considerable fanbase among the parliamentary party. Although he backed Remain, the Foreign Secretary has made up for that by embracing Brexit with the zeal of the convert.
Other ambitious Tories have been on a similar Brexit journey, such as Sajid Javid. George Osborne’s protege has come into his stride as Home Secretary.
The Leave leaders
But some Brexiteers will also be looking for a true believer who has not tainted their credo by previously backing Remain at the referendum, or even dared to vote for the withdrawal agreement (something Raab and Johnson did begrudgingly at the third meaningful vote).
So they could find their champion in the form of Priti Patel, a fervent Vote Leave campaigner who is economically more of a Thatcherite than Mrs May, having repeatedly eulogised the effect of cutting taxes in the past. Ms Patel did, at one point, float the idea of bringing back the death penalty on Question Time, but she has since quickly U-turned on the issue—a sign that she wants to polish her image.
If she doesn’t go for it, Steve Baker—deputy head of the European Research Group—would feel duty-bound to represent Brexiteers, unless one of the bigger candidates shows their readiness to embrace a no-deal exit.
The dark horses
Are there any dark horses? Keep an eye on Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt, the recently appointed defence secretary who was a lamentably unsung reformer as international developments secretary. And James Cleverly, the Tory deputy chairman turned Brexit minister, is a smart rising star.
But a swift contest may lead both to decide that it is better to throw their weight behind an established candidate in order to put themselves in line for senior jobs. Michael Gove has been having lots of conversations with Tory colleagues, leading fans to enthuse about how he is “fizzing with ideas.”
Yet he offered the same pitch after stabbing Mr Johnson in the back in 2016, and was swiftly eliminated from the contest by MPs. Some Tory parliamentarians have still not forgiven him for this, especially those on the Brexiteer wing—who also see his loyal defence of Mrs May’s deal as a sign of further shiftiness.
Do any Brexitsceptics have a chance? Rory Stewart was a Remain backer who has earned his place in cabinet for being one of the few ministers happy to steadfastly defend Mrs May’s deal. The former diplomat and member of the Black Watch has an excellent CV and has made clear his interest in the top job, but honesty about one’s ambition is not enough to win a leadership campaign.
But Mr Stewart’s interest is a sign that those averse to a no-deal feel they need to be represented, so if he does not mount an official bid, someone else similar will take up the mantle.
William Hague once described the Tory party as an “absolute monarchy moderated by regicide.” Now Tory MPs have got rid of their Queen, they’ll waste no time in fighting it out to take the throne.
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