As Theresa May struggles to get her Brexit deal over the finish line, another fight is taking place out of sight — the contest to replace her as prime minister and leader of the Conservative party.
Having overcome a vote of no confidence at the end of last year, Mrs May cannot be formally challenged for the party leadership again until December. But her closest colleagues believe she will be forced out of office shortly after the UK has left the EU.
“Nobody in cabinet thinks she will still be prime minister by the end of the year, not least because the Brexiters will come for her again in December,” said one cabinet minister. “I suspect the ‘men in grey suits’ [the party grandees who told Margaret Thatcher she could not go on] will be visiting soon after Brexit day.”
Already a large number of potential successors are forming their campaign teams, reaching out to donors and plotting their way to Downing Street. They fall into three groups — “big beasts” such as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, “wild cards” such as Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, and “long shots” such as James Cleverly, the party’s deputy chairman.
Mrs May herself is likely to try and stay in office for another year or so if her EU withdrawal deal passes, to focus on domestic issues in an attempt to ensure that her legacy is defined by more than just Brexit.
Few in government consider this a realistic option. “Everyone thinks she needs to go soon,” said another cabinet minister. “Don’t forget that Theresa is very stubborn: even if the whole cabinet threatened to walk, she’d try and cling on. No one in the party thinks she can lead us afterwards on a domestic agenda.”
The prime minister has already announced she will not lead the party into another general election, due in 2022. She faces political peril in the days ahead, as she seeks to win a recalcitrant Westminster’s backing for her deal ahead of the scheduled Brexit date of March 29. Some Eurosceptic MPs have told Downing Street that an imminent departure is the price for their support.
If Mrs May were indeed to resign this year, Mr Johnson would be the favourite, “the only guy people on the street recognise”, according to one of his supporters. Paul Goodman, editor of ConservativeHome, an influential party political website, said that, according to its regular surveys, the former foreign secretary “will win our party members, if Tory MPs forward him to them as a candidate”.
Under the party’s election rules, a series of votes by Conservative MPs would reduce the number of contenders to two, who then go through to a run-off vote by the national membership.
The challenge for Mr Johnson is the first phase. In the last contest three years ago, he was forced to pull out due to a lack of support from MPs. But his hopes of building a parliamentary coterie have been boosted recently by two recruits to his nascent campaign: Jacob Rees-Mogg, head of the Brexit-supporting European Research Group caucus, and Johnny Mercer, a former soldier and MP for Plymouth Moor View, people in the Johnson camp say.
Dominic Raab, a former Brexit secretary, would be likely to take on Mr Johnson for the Eurosceptic mantle. Mr Raab’s standing among MPs has been growing thanks to his tough opposition to Mrs May’s deal with the EU. He has been helped by Hugo Swire, a former Foreign Office minister who has been speaking to donors about supporting a Raab bid.
Several alumni from the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum — including ex-communications director Paul Stephenson and Beth Armstrong, a former adviser to environment secretary Michael Gove — have been working with Mr Raab on laying the groundwork for a leadership bid, according to those with knowledge of the campaign. A grassroots “Ready for Raab” campaign on social media is actively promoting his candidacy.
By contrast, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt may seek to win round both Remainers and Leavers. But MPs are concerned that some of Mr Hunt’s remarks — such as likening the EU to the Soviet Union — may limit his appeal. “Jeremy’s hopes are resting on coming through the middle, as a calm voice amid the madness like John Major [in the 1990 leadership contest],” said one minister. “But the problem is, the more he tries to appeal to the right of the party, he is losing the left. No one really knows where he stands.”
Sajid Javid, home secretary, is the other holder of a major office of state in the frame. His personal history as a second-generation Muslim immigrant, his successful career in finance and his performance in the Home Office have found favour with MPs. “Sajid doesn’t need a team in the way others do because his role and standing in the party put him in the leadership mix whenever the time comes,” said one friend. “He’s more focused on the day job.”
Others are not so impressed by Mr Javid or the other main contenders. “This leadership race looks like a selection for the fourth 11,” said one influential Tory backbencher, who criticised Mr Johnson and Mr Raab’s stints in office as ineffective and added that Mr Hunt and Mr Javid were “trying to reassert their position by trying to outbid the right”.
Then there are the wild cards: ministers who are likely to run but may lack the experience or have significant drawbacks. Ms Truss has developed a high profile on social media while making speeches promoting Thatcherite Conservative ideas. Penny Mordaunt, international development secretary, has talked about broadening the party’s appeal. Defence secretary Gavin Williamson has been touring the so-called “rubber chicken circuit” of local Conservative associations. Health secretary Matt Hancock is increasingly mentioned by MPs as a potential candidate to represent the centre of the party.
There are two further possible candidates in the cabinet: Mr Gove, who many MPs say is “distrusted”, due to his decision to challenge Mr Johnson in the 2016 leadership contest, and work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd, who is seen as unpalatable to the party’s membership. “A Davos-dwelling Remainer is not what the party wants or needs,” said one Conservative MP.
More junior MPs are long shots, who may run to put down a marker for future contests or in hope of gaining ministerial office. Mr Cleverly, the party’s deputy chairman, and Tom Tugendhat, the well-regarded chair of the foreign affairs select committee, have both expressed an interest in the leadership. Mr Mercer may opt to run for the top job despite his backing for Mr Johnson.
Although the UK may have left the EU by the time Mrs May departs from office, Brexit still is likely to define the leadership race. The right flank of the party is desperate to take hold of the leadership to ensure that the future relationship with the EU is a relatively loose Canada-style arrangement. Any candidate who supported Leave in the 2016 referendum, opposed Mrs May’s Brexit agreement or talked up the prospect of a no-deal exit is therefore more likely to succeed.
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