THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED ON MARCH 28TH 2019
So, Theresa May has confirmed that if her deal gets voted through Parliament, she’ll leave. That begs the question, who will replace her? In this article, we’ll go through some of the options. The bookies have already started speculating, so we will take a look at some of the frontrunners, as well as some relative longshots and see why they have the odds that they have.
Firstly, just a quick overview of how the Tories decide on their leader. The Conservatives have a system where the parliamentary party selects two candidates by slowly whittling them down in stages where the candidate with the lowest number of votes is excluded. Once only two remain the wider membership, i.e. Conservative party members, get to vote between the two remaining candidates. Sometimes, the membership don’t even get a vote because candidates drop out before the vote gets to the membership. This is what happened when Theresa May became leader. The point here is that the Conservative MPs have a lot of control over who becomes leader. This has historically meant that you don’t need to be the most liked candidate to get to the final round, you simply have to be the least disliked. For example, even though Heseltine was a well known politician who initially stood against Thatcher, it was the more unknown John Major who became leader.
The mechanics of the leadership election is important to bare in mind when considering new leaders. For example, although Boris Johnson is well known and has had speculation consistently following him about potentially becoming leader of the Conservative Party, this is unlikely due to him having many enemies in the parliamentary party. In fact, a Guardian article last week pointed out that a number of Conservative MPs had threatened to resign if he was to become leader. So, it is unlikely he’d make it to the final two. This is in spite of the fact that he is well liked by the public, with a YouGov poll putting him as the most liked Conservative politician. But, if the MPs don’t really like him, it’s unlikely the membership will get a say on him.
So, if not Boris, then who?
Michael Gove has long been touted as a future Tory leader, coming third behind May and Andrea Leadsom in the 2016 leadership contest. This came after he controversially went against his promise to support Boris in any leadership election. A Brexiteer during the referendum, he would be a top choice for many Conservative members who seek a leader who, unlike May, has been a Brexiteer from the start. His history as part of shadow or full cabinet since 2007 puts him in a strong position to campaign on his leadership experience. Although seen as more competent and steadier pair of hands than Johnson, his image also is often a source of mockery whilst he is prone to a gaffe or two. For example, different news outlets have mocked the way he drinks water. Although unfair and pretty savage, the British media have made similar criticisms of past leaders such as Miliband (remember the infamous bacon sandwich?). This means that despite his experience, he may suffer at the cruel hands of the British media were he to lead the party into a general election. Irrespective of this, Gove appears to be a strong contender, with bookies putting him consistently in the 5/2 to 7/2 range.
Another strong contender is Jeremy Hunt. Hunt is another big player in the Conservative Party, previously being Secretary of State for Health, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, Minister for the Olympics and currently being the Foreign Secretary. As Secretary of State for Health, Hunt received a lot of criticism for, arguably, putting the NHS into crisis. However, he also suffers from one of the things troubling May and some of the other contenders – he also supported remaining in the EU in 2016. This means that the Eurosceptic wing may not support him as they may want a leader, unlike May, who supported the cause they support. Despite this, his experience has helped him become one of the front runners. Additionally, he has even claimed in the past that he would be interested in having “a crack at the top job”. The bookies have put his odds between 9/1 and 7/1.
Dominic Raab too is a top candidate for the job. In an effort to give himself a USP, he has sought to be considered the best leader for a no-deal scenario. He was a relative unknown until he became a minister in 2017, before quickly rising to his (short-lived) Brexit Secretary tenure in mid-late 2018. During that time, he didn’t do much for his future leadership ambitions, committing a major faux-pas when he suggested that he wasn’t aware of how important the channel was to UK-EU trade. That being said, Raab could be a popular candidate among both MPs and party members, and could be a fresh-face to those who want rid of the same old elites in the Tory party.
Another of the leading candidates is the current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. He is a highly regarded politician in the Conservative Party and for someone who only entered Parliament in 2010, he already has a wealth of experience (he has held 8 ministerial positions, including 4 Secretary of State positions). Unlike many of the aforementioned candidates, Javid has managed fairly well to operate without controversy despite coming into the Home Office amid the scandal over the poor treatment of the Windrush generation. He would be the first BME leader of the Conservative party, or any major party for that matter. Of the front-runners, Javid currently has the worst odds to become leader, but we will have to see how the contest progresses once May officially steps down.
Among relative outsiders, in recent weeks there has been talk of David Lidington. Lidington would fit the bill of a candidate with few enemies, making him a potential candidate to get to the final round of voting. An MP since 1992, he has held several cabinet and shadow positions, most notably Minister of State for Europe. Lidington is widely-known to be vehemently pro-EU, even earning the moniker ‘Mr Europe’. Although he is seen within the party as a safe-pair of hands currently the PMs no.2, his feelings on Brexit will pose problems for him with the members if he seeks to assume the leadership.
Some have wishfully speculated about the appeal of Jacob Rees Mogg. He has become a bit of a cult-figure and has quite a following of Tory activists, with a former winner of I’m a Celeb Georgia Toffolo surprisingly calling him a “sex god”. Weird indeed, but it highlights the support he has. However, his stance on certain issues such as abortion has got him in some hot water in the past and may make it incredibly difficult to win support from the wider Conservative membership, let alone with the public if he were to make it to a general election.
Which of Them Could Win?
The Conservative leadership is impossible to predict at this stage, and all will become a lot clearer in the future when the Prime Minister has gone and candidates officially declare. At this stage, Gove and Raab seem to be the most realistic candidates because of their consistent pro-Brexit stances. The Conservative MPs and members must think carefully about choosing their next leader – this person will not only lead the party in the final stages of Brexit, they will have to be electable too.
We have made a table, shown below, that provides a summary of potential leader candidates. Obviously, it is a massive simplification and should be used just to get an overview of the information surrounding candidates.