Politics & Policy

Who Will Lead the Tories Next?

Boris Johnson adresses the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, England, in 2017. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
A look at the likeliest contenders to replace Prime Minister Theresa May should conservative discontent spark a battle for her job

Speaking at the E.U. summit in Salzburg last week, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, humiliated Prime Minister Theresa May by saying that her Brexit plan “will not work” because it “risks undermining the single market.” To many conservatives, this was further proof of the E.U.’s uncompromising approach to the Brexit negotiations, and of the need for the cleaner break with Europe favored by the Vote Leave campaign.

In other words, the E.U.’s rejection of May’s plan was welcome news to many pro-Brexit Tories. The so-called Chequers deal, which May announced in July, offers a strikingly diluted version of the Brexit the country voted for. When it was unveiled, then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson called it a “turd” and resigned along with some lesser-known ministers.

Nevertheless, Britain must reach a deal with the E.U. by March 29 or else leave without one – and with the clock ticking, even some Brexiteers now favor a more “pragmatic” approach. For instance, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, a self-described “realist” who worked with Johnson on the Vote Leave campaign, has since defended the Chequers deal as “the right one for now,” saying it can be adapted later.

But not everyone within the Conservative party is happy with May’s proposal. In Westminster there are rumors of an imminent leadership challenge. Earlier this month, the London Times revealed that 50 Tory MPs had recently met to discuss getting rid of her. Those party insiders who remain loyal to the prime minister fiercely deny the rumors of an impending no-confidence vote. One told National Review that this story is “categorical bollocks.” Likewise, Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg oftentimes deny these claims, reiterating that it is Chequers, and not the Prime Minister, that they wish to “chuck.”

Still, given May’s political struggles and the discontent with Chequers brewing to her right, one wonders how many Tory MPs are quietly hoping to force her out. Referring to a leadership challenge, one Conservative MP told National Review, “If her policy doesn’t change, we’d end up with a very bad deal for Britain. Then the unthinkable [getting rid of her sooner rather than later] might become the essential.”

Whether or not a leadership challenge is upcoming, conservatives will likely not want Theresa May to run in the next election. They need someone who is capable of leading in decisive times, but also someone with enough grassroots appeal to win a general election. Who might this person be? In no particular order, here are some names being floated around the House of Commons.

Ruth Davidson

Davidson is currently serving as the leader of the Scottish Conservative party. She has been described as head-strong, politically savvy, and charismatic. However, she has said that she has no intention of leaving the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh for Westminster any time soon.

Sajid Javid

Javid, the home Secretary, is considered by some to be a unifying figure, while others worry he lacks the charisma needed to lead.

Dominic Raab

Raab is the secretary of state for exiting the European Union. He has been described as organized, hardworking, and capable of selling a vision to voters.

Boris Johnson

Johnson has been a back-bencher since resigning as foreign secretary earlier this year. Before that he was mayor of London, and before that a successful journalist. He is a very divisive figure within the Conservative party, but is also among the most well-known, charismatic politicians in the country.

Though negative economic forecasts have been unreliable so far, MPs are right to expect turbulence in post-Brexit Britain. Tory in-fighting may be inevitable, but it could also prove to be wasted energy. The clock is ticking on Brexit. And as one MP close to Johnson put it, now more than ever, “Britain needs to be led, not managed.”

Madeleine Kearns is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. She is from Glasgow, Scotland, and is a trained singer.

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