- Prior to the recent scandals, Boris Johnson was tipped to be prime minister for a decade.
- But now, his grip on power is weakening — and leadership rivals are emerging.
- However, all have flaws. There is no obvious replacement for the most successful Conservative prime minister since Thatcher.
It is almost unthinkable, but thinking about it, Conservative MPs most definitely are.
Just two years after Boris Johnson secured the party’s biggest victory since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 win, his backbenchers are openly discussing his departure —and who will succeed him.
A few weeks ago, Conservative figures suggested Johnson could call a snap election to refresh his majority and cement his hold on power for another five years. Pundits predicted he could be in Number 10 for a decade.
But then came successive leaks, allegations of conflicts of interest, self-dealing sleaze, lockdown-busting parties, and a slew of polls giving Labour a growing lead. Now there is a real chance that Johnson’s tenure could be shorter than Theresa May’s.
May held the reins for just three years before resigning as post-Brexit negotiations and a hung parliament paralyzed her government and Westminster.
In the summer of 2019, Johnson was waiting in the wings. The leadership campaign pitted Johnson against Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock, men he would later join his Cabinet. Rory Stewart garnered some support as a dark horse candidate, while Jeremy Hunt got down to the final two — and, ultimately, paid for it with a seat on the backbenches.
In reality, the contest was a formality. Everyone knew Johnson — who famously, when a child, said he wanted to be “world king” — would take the crown.
This time, perhaps because no one expected his demise so soon, things are quite different. There is no obvious pretender to the throne.
Here’s a look at who might be Britain’s next prime minister.
Liz Truss: ‘#InLizWeTruss’
—Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) November 30, 2021
Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary and longest-serving government minister, appears on paper to be in with a shout. Having shed her pro-Remain stance to become a buccaneering libertarian, she regularly tops ConHome’s ministerial league table (in fact, every month consecutively for over a year now).
Truss has a penchant for photoshoots — some of which go awry — but recently channeled Thatcher by posing in a tank in Estonia, presumably in the hope of sending the Tory right wild.
She has also been putting in the leg work, wining, and dining colleagues at the swanky private members club 5 Hertford Street.
And yet it seems she is having limited success at winning MPs over. Despite asking backbenchers for weeks whether they fancy Truss as their next prime minister, Insider has yet to find one who backs her.
“Liz Truss is not going to get in,” says one MP. Another adds: “I would be astonished if Liz was in the final two.”
Asked if they would prefer Truss to Johnson, a third replied: “Urgh, she’s no better.”
Rishi Sunak: The Chancellor’s chances
Rishi Sunak has the opposite problem. He was a relative unknown at the start of the pandemic, a junior Treasury minister with little experience of speaking to the public at large.
At that time, Sajid Javid, then Chancellor, was given an ultimatum by Johnson and his then-chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, to sack his entire team of advisers and rely on a joint unit. When Javid refused, Sunak was brought in — just as his role would become crucial to helping the country through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sunak’s team has actively promoted ‘brand Rishi’ in the last 18 months— meaning he has relatively high cut-through among the wider public. The brand is the polar opposite to Johnson’s: one of quiet competence, perhaps a little boring and nerdy, but not without self-deprecating charm.
Yet his role in the high-spending, high-taxing government has not gone unnoticed: Sunak’s popularity has sunk among Tory members in recent months. While some MPs still believe “he can come and save us,” says one backbencher, it’s hardly conclusive.
“The Chancellor lost support on tax and cost-of-living issues,” says a ‘Red Wall’ MP, a traditional Labour party seat that fell to the Conservatives in Johnson’s 2019 victory.
A former minister gives a more damning verdict.
“Rishi comes with Dom Cummings baggage — Dom is working for Rishi, maybe not explicitly, but his whole motivation is to get Rishi into No 10 and that has to worry people,” the MP tells Insider.
“We can’t have the country run by Dom Cummings any longer. He ran it for Boris. Now he is running it to get rid of Boris. Since 2016, Dominic Cummings has been behind all the decisions of this country.”
Also runners — or dark horses?
Beyond these two figures, there is no consensus about who could take the reins. One MP favors Penny Mordaunt, a Brexiteer former minister, and Royal Navy reservist, who is said to have been on maneuvers almost as long as the others.
Another fancies James Cleverly, a Foreign Office minister, and former Conservative party chairman, who “ran the machinery of the party and is incredibly well thought of”.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has some supporters but others argue she would struggle for having failed to address the crisis of small boats, filled with immigrants, crossing the Channel.
Robert Buckland, the former Justice Secretary, is said to be canvassing support, while Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is talked about in the same terms as Stewart once was.
“I have even heard [backbenchers] Graham Brady and Julian Lewis saying they would be the dream ticket,” one MP scoffed.
The names run on and on. Backbenchers argue that they do not need a chosen replacement to depose Johnson, which is technically correct. But the reality is that there is no viable alternative around which to coalesce without at least a couple of strong contenders.
It has made more would-be leadership hopefuls start to mobilize.
“The possibility of a leadership challenge has made a number of the Cabinet decide they can’t be sheep,” says one member of the government. “Now they are growing wolves’ fangs.”