Boris Johnson resigned last week, and just as quickly, the race started for his replacement†
There are still five contenders in the race to take over the leadership of the Conservative Party and of the United Kingdom after Conservative members of parliament voted in the opening rounds of the leadership contest this week.
This is just the beginning of selecting a new party leader, a process that was set in motion after Johnson became embroiled in one scandal too many and faced intense pressure from his party to resign. Johnson is expected to remain as prime minister until September 5, when his successor is announced.
Who that will be is currently the question for the Conservatives – and still a fairly open one, although some frontrunners are starting to emerge† The next leader will face increasing challenges: inflation and the cost of living crisis, war in Ukraine and its economic consequences, and the loose ends of Brexit† And the next leader will have to rehabilitate a conservative party, that is… now struggling with potential votersand define the party away from the controversies and dramas of the Johnson administration.
The last time the Conservatives did this, in 2019, Johnson was the obvious frontrunner, and the contest was all about Brexit. In 2022, the leadership contest is a lot less simple. Much has been made of the ethnic diversity of the pool of contenders – something the Conservative Party has touted. But the biggest question the party is grappling with in real time is how much distance they want from Johnson. The answer may ultimately depend on who the Conservative Party thinks is most likely to help them win again.
Boris Johnson looms in the race to replace him
The next British Prime Minister will also come from the Conservatives, or Tories, as they are called. The actual composition of Parliament will not change – early elections cannot be ruled out, but they are not currently on the table – and the Conservatives will retain their majority and control of the government. For now, the next general election won’t take place until around spring 2024, so whoever takes over from Johnson will present themselves as the person who can best carry the Conservatives to victory next time.
But this also means that the selection process is a bit exclusive – limited to Conservative MPs and dues-paying party members. In the first round of voting, contenders needed the support of at least 30 MPs to advance to the second round. Six of the eight reached that threshold on Wednesday† Starting Thursday, the candidates with the fewest votes will be eliminated in each subsequent round, until there are only two left. Then about 200,000 party members will choose among those finalists.
A few frontrunners have emerged, but it is still early. The five currently in contention, in order of votes from most to least, are: Rishi Sunakthe former finance minister who helped kick off the cabinet uprising against Johnson last week; Penny Mordauntthe Minister of State Trade Policy; Liz Trussthe Minister of Foreign Affairs; Kemi Badenoch† who was the equality secretary until he resigned during Johnson’s uprising; Tom Tugendhat, a backseat MP and former Afghanistan veteran whose profile rose because of his criticism of last year’s US withdrawal. (On Thursday, Suella Bravermanthe Attorney General, was eliminated.)
Results second conservative leadership vote:
Sunak – 101
Mordaunt – 83
Truss – 64
Badenoch – 49
Tugendhat – 32
Braverman – 27
— British electoral politics (@electpoliticsuk) July 14, 2022
Sunak is the leader after the first and second rounds, although second place, Penny Mordaunt, is the favorite among the party members, according to a recent YouGov poll — meaning if she can make it to the finals, it looks like she has a pretty good shot. Liz Truss, third place, was whispered as a possible future prime minister, but she’s underperforming so far. But it is also possible that candidates will soar if they win the votes of the candidates who have been eliminated.
Boris Johnson may ultimately have the greatest influence on who has the upper hand — not because he personally retains power, but because the deciding factor for some MPs and voters could be how much the party really wants to distance himself from him. Candidates like Sunak and Truss made their profile as part of Johnson’s administration, which also means they’ve supported him through Partygate and Johnson’s other deceptions. (Sunak was fined next to Johnson for violating Covid-19’s pandemic rules.) In addition, while both Sunak and Truss have campaign experience, they also have a track record of government service that can be more easily investigated, including Sunak, who helped the U.K. economy by leading Covid, but now facing an inflation crisis.
On the other hand, those candidates further away from government, or with less prominent ministerial posts, could be perceived as lacking in experience, which could put a strain on them given the economic and political pressures facing the UK.
This voltage may be why Mordaunt has emerged as the Tory favourite. She has served in government under several prime ministers (Cameron† Be able to, Johnson), but she’s not one of the biggest names in Johnson’s administration. She was a Royal Navy reservist and former Defense Secretary, credentials she has used to prove her ability to handle current crises. She was an early supporter of the UK leaving the European Union, thus meeting the party’s Brexiteer vote. And she is apparently a pretty smart operatorafter building relationships with the Tory grassroots that seem to be paying off right now.
“Some of the other candidates would offer a clear break with the Johnson government if you like, but they have no experience,” said Kevin Hickson, senior lecturer in British politics at the University of Liverpool. “While Mordaunt may have the right balance between offering something new and having relevant experience.”
Outside of Boris, the economic and culture wars dominate the race
The Tories may want to break up with Boris, but they probably also recognize that he was something of a special figure. Their historic 2019 general election victory brought new voters into a party, including seats that had traditionally gone to Labour. Brexit, and to make it happen, the conservatives united last time. But this time, the economy, including inflation, takes center stage.
Most of that debate has focused on tax cuts† Johnson oversaw tax increasespartly in response to the recovery from the pandemic, and now many of the people vying to replace it want to return to more traditional conservative principles of curbing government spending and cutting taxes.
They are also selling it as a remedy for the inflation crisis by easing the burden on households. As Hickson said, promising tax cuts is kind of a populist strategy, but candidates struggle to explain exactly how they’re going to do it — and what government spending is at stake. And yes, tax cuts may sound nice, but they can be at odds with some of the conservative voters and the wider public, who may be a little more conflicted about cutting government investment.
Tax cuts are high on the agenda for many Tory leadership candidates, but with no mention of corresponding cuts in public service spending. Brits are divided on where the priority should be:
— YouGov (@YouGov) July 11, 2022
Sunak, who oversaw economic policy for the past few years, could come under a lot of pressure in this regard – and again, he has a track record that needs to be scrutinized. He said he wants to get inflation under control?, and then cut taxes. Others, like Liz Truss, have said they would cut taxes”from day one† mordaunt said it would halve the value added tax (VAT) on fuel and raise the tax threshold for lower income earners. Some candidates have more detailed plans than others, but lowering the tax burden is a common theme, even when the details are murky, including how they will make up for lost tax revenue.
Culture wars are also bubbling up in the race, and one of the targets, as in the US, is trans issues. Candidates like Kemi Badenoch and the now expelled Suella Braverman are seen as two figures trying to promote “anti-wokeism”. Mordaunt, meanwhile, has previously defended trans rightsbut in a Twitter thread and public commentsshe tried to signal that she’s not as “awake” as her critics made her seem†
Conservatives have also put forward their diverse list of leadership candidates as a counterweight to what they see as more left-wing”identity politics† Of the five candidates currently remaining, two are from ethnic minorities and four are women. The Conservative Party has made an effort to diversify its representation in Parliamentand rising stars, although party membership tends to be whiter and older.
All in all, this all looks a lot like a political campaign, and that’s exactly what it is. Tricky tax cuts and a debate over the definition of a woman seem a bit out of sync for what the next British Prime Minister should do. UK inflation is at its highest point in 40 yearsand the risks of even more power outages due to the war in Ukraine and Russian sanctions could deepen that emergency. The war in Ukraine is likely to continue and the UK’s next leader will have to manage that response and work with allies and partners as much as possible. And things with partners aren’t as great as the UK has done threatened to blow up the Brexit deal it negotiated with the European Union, risking tensions and a possible trade war.
The next prime minister has the power to change direction. Much will depend on whether the next party leader really wants it distance themselves from Johnson – or if they want to follow his course, just free from the chaos and controversies of Johnson’s making.