These are the last days of May—Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May. After weeks of pressure to resign, she finally agreed to step down as leader of the governing Conservative Party and then as prime minister. The May 24 announcement was like the opening of the starting gates at a horse race. The contest to succeed May has begun in earnest. More competitors will join the pack until nominations close in the week beginning June 10.
Then, the 330 Conservative MPs will vote to narrow the field to two names. The party’s roughly 124,000 members up and down the country will make the final choice. Their pick will be announced before parliament rises for summer. This means Britain should have a new prime minister by mid-July.
Who might that be? The track was getting crowded even before there was anything to run for. But May’s tearful farewell served as a trigger. Some 20 MPs indicated an interest in the contest and as with racehorses, bookies are pricing up the political gallop to the finish, which would be 10 Downing Street.
As of May 24, a leading gambling website offered the following probability of victory for a handful of candidates:
- Boris Johnson 47.6 per cent
- Dominic Raab 13.2 per cent
- Michael Gove 8.3 per cent
- Jeremy Hunt 6.5 per cent
- Andrea Leadsom 4.8 per cent
- Sajid Javid 3.3 per cent
The rest of the field has been left in the shadow, at least by punters and at least for the moment. But that doesn’t mean there are no dark horses. The Conservative Party’s history shows the favourite to win a leadership race often ends as an also-ran. So it was with Ted Heath, the front-runner who lost to Margaret Thatcher in 1975. And so it was with Michael Heseltine, David Davis and Boris Johnson, who respectively lost to John Major in 1990, David Cameron in 2005 and Theresa May in 2016.
As with an actual horse race, the odds will change. A contender may seem to be boxed in, unable to overtake as they are blocked by others. The fancied name may have a breakdown, sustaining injury to their prospects. The long shot may pull ahead. The winner may triumph by a nose.
Bookies and horse racing aside, a credible analysis of the state of the political race may come from the ConservativeHome website, which is independent of the party but supports it as well as the interests of grassroots members. As of May 24, ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman offered the following distillation from a compilation of “our own list …of declared and undeclared supporters of possible contenders”: Jeremy Hunt already has the support of 27 Tory MPs, Boris Johnson has 19, Dominic Raab 13, Michael Gove 12 and Sajid Javid 10.
Who are all these people and what are their chances? And while we’re at it, is there anyone else to watch?
First, the Conservative Home top picks:
Currently foreign secretary, Hunt made headlines soon after he got the high-profile job, for a faux pas while on an official visit to China in July 2018. He called his Chinese-born wife “Japanese”. More recently, he compared the European Union to the Soviet Union, an infelicitous comment from Britain’s chief diplomat. However, Hunt is seen as a savvy and dogged political functionary, having managed six years from September 2012 in the tricky job of health secretary, especially in a period of government-induced economic austerity. He has seen through doctors’ strikes, a National Health Service (NHS) crisis that saw thousands of non-urgent operations postponed. And he has masterminded far-reaching managerial reforms of the NHS. Having originally campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union, Hunt now says he supports Brexit. Unflashy and seemingly unfancied for now—at least by the bookies—Hunt may be one to watch.
The former foreign secretary is a political entertainer, with his propensity to Latin phrases and English words long lost to ordinary conversation. Johnson, a figure straight out of P. G. Wodehouse, wears his Bertie Wooster mannerisms as a mark of distinction in the 21st century. A former journalist who reported on the European project from Brussels colourfully, if not always accurately, Johnson won two terms as mayor of London. Ambitious and capricious, he deliberated on whether to campaign for or against Brexit, eventually judging the ‘Leave’ camp to be a better bet. A celebrity, Johnson is wildly popular with ordinary members of the Conservative Party but not so much with Tory MPs. Additionally, he has been described by Max Hastings, a former editor of Johnson’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, as a “gold-plated egomaniac”. A fine writer, Johnson wrote a biography of Winston Churchill five years ago, a move that some likened to a distasteful attempt to equate himself with a titan of British history. He’s described as the clear frontrunner in the race to succeed Theresa May, but would have to, in horse racing terms, display a good turn of foot.
Formerly Brexit secretary, Raab is distinguished by his interest in kick-boxing and black belt in karate. He studied law at Oxford, began his career as a lawyer and diplomat at the foreign office and then entered politics. He has worked his way up to the front ranks of British politics, assuming junior roles in the Ministry of Justice and then a stint as housing minister. An unnamed former cabinet minister is quoted to say Raab is “the male Margaret Thatcher… (and) with the ‘legal mind’ that is necessary in these legislatively complex times”. Raab has taken the occasional jab at the “obnoxious bigotry” displayed by feminists towards men, who he said sometimes have a “raw deal”. A committed Brexiteer, he believes leaving the EU is about returning Britain’s unique “idea of liberty, developed over 800 years”. One to watch.
Environment secretary and a wily, sure-footed political operator with the proverbial nine lives, Gove is the adopted son of an Aberdeen fishmonger but hung out with well-schooled Tories like Boris Johnson at Oxford. A moderniser and an efficient minister, Gove is also a maverick, who supported the Brexit campaign and persuaded Johnson to come along for the ride. During the campaign, Gove declared the people “have had enough of experts” who were warning against leaving the EU. He is blamed for having fostered some of the public distrust of informed opinion in the three years since the Brexit referendum. But he is also now seen to have embraced a more pragmatic view of Britain’s future relationship with the EU and has broken with hardcore Brexiteers. Gove was a Johnson supporter for Tory leader in 2016 but subsequently reneged, so he is not greatly trusted by his fellow MPs. But he has charm, presence, fluency and acumen. He may yet be a stayer.
Home secretary. He is the first Muslim to hold a great office of state. His story—one that he tells often—is of immigration and hard work. His Pakistani father arrived in the UK with no more than a pound and went on to drive a bus, while his mother ran a shop. Javid adheres to a philosophy supported by traditional members of the US Republican Party—that of the libertarian novelist Ayn Rand. A believer in Thatcherism and a reluctant supporter of the Remain camp in the Brexit referendum, Javid is thought to be instinctively in favour of a light-regulation Britain free of onerous EU rules. He has made some fairly hardline decisions as Home Secretary, not least stripping 19-year-old British-born-and-bred Shamima Begum of her citizenship for supporting ISIS. At least some of this has been ascribed to his ambition for the top job. He may serve as a pacemaker for the back of the race.
Finally, a dark horse.
International development secretary, former diplomat and a walker who has written a book about undertaking the exercise across war-torn Afghanistan in 2002, Stewart, according to ConservativeHome, which headlines him approvingly as “unusual”, has baldly declared he would like to be prime minister and thinks he has what it takes. He served as minister of state for prisons from January 2018 to May 2019. He has drawn some criticism for “not listening to advice” but praise for his out-of-the-box thinking. Jonathan Aitken, a former Conservative MP who was convicted for perjury and knows the prison system from the inside, has said “as a prison minister, Stewart has been a considerable success, but part of that is just sheer luck”. Aitken also said “As a dark horse bet [in the leadership race] Stewart is quite interesting. He’s cut from a different cloth. He’s got a most unusual mind. They’re all going to be looking for someone who can unite the party a bit.”
Stewart voted ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum but says he would now offer a centrist solution, pulling Britain out but maintaining close economic ties with Europe. He is also a truth-teller, declaring that if the Conservative Party makes “the mistake” of trying to outdo Nigel Farage and the Brexit-supporting hard right, “we’d lose young people, we’d lose Scotland, we’d lose London and we’d lose a lot of the most energetic parts of this country. We’ve got to be a broad party…” A long shot but an interesting one.
(Rashmee Roshan Lall is an international affairs columnist based in London. Views are personal.)