Could Robert Jenrick be the next Conservative Party leader?

It’s SW1’s worst-kept secret: the Conservative Party is looking over and beyond the horizon of the next election and plotting its future. 

Take the recent launch of Liz Truss’ Popular Conservative grouping or “movement” to uncritically adopt its rhetoric. Speaking to this latest faction’s inaugural conference, the former prime minister rejected accusations she holds hidden regicidal intentions; as proof, the PopCons peeled the openly anti-Sunak Sir Simon Clarke off the conference’s order paper. We’re about ideas not coups, the subtext suggested.

Still, why form another ideological faction — and why now? The answer is simple: more than ever, hostile Conservative MPs expect Rishi Sunak to lose the next election but think it’s too late to oust him. PopCon serves as the latest institutional expression of the Trussite cause; in time, one assumes, it will plough its resources into its chosen post-election standard-bearer.

With PopCon on the scene, the sheer number of Conservative groupings would point to an especially fraught 2024/25 leadership contest — even by the standards of the Conservatives’ quickfire 2022 races. The legacy of recent regicides; a likely electoral reckoning; the expected interventions from a swathe of newly-unemployed ex-MPs; and a fractious and disenchanted base will make for a strikingly divisive contest. 

So, who will be the runners and riders vying for the Tory crown? Today, it would seem the Conservative Party boasts the longest list of aspirants in recent memory; every move of Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch, James Cleverly and Penny Mordaunt is viewed through the prism of a contest to come. Other potential challengers, such as Dame Priti Patel, Lord Frost, Tom Tugendhat, Gillian Keegan, Claire Coutinho, Miriam Cates, Lord Cameron, Sir Simon Clarke, Andrew Bowie and Ranil Jayawardena abound. And somewhere on this list likely features PM across the water Boris Johnson and prominent pretender Nigel Farage. 

Of course, some of these potential contenders are more possible than others. Even the supposed high-fliers, such as Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, have baggage to explain away or obstacles to overcome. But, as rivals continue to twist and turn, one dark horse candidate has shown he’s willing to outpace them all: Robert Jenrick. His ambition is unquestionable. 

Jenrick’s ambition

One reading of Robert Jenrick’s shadow leadership campaign suggests it began on 6 December 2023 when he resigned as immigration minister. But another places its inception point even sooner on 13 November, when Suella Braverman was removed as home secretary as part of a sweeping reshuffle. As was noted at the time, in the period from 13 November to 6 December, the snubbed Jenrick filled the vacuum left by Braverman in Whitehall by positioning himself to the right of the government on both legal and illegal migration. It meant when the ex-Sunak lackey himself departed, ostensibly over the Safety of Rwanda Bill, he assumed a prominent place among the PM’s rebels, spearheading rebel amendments to the legislation and even voting against it at third reading. 

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Last month, after a period of relative quietude, Jenrick reflected on his recent career trajectory with GB News — that increasingly important forum for an ambitious Tory. Speaking to host Camilla Tominey, the former immigration minister played coy when asked about a future leadership contest: “I’m not ruling it out”, he insisted. This admission came just one month after Jenrick told the BBC he “is not interested” in the Conservative crown.

Other signals of Jenrick’s ambition include his visit to Texas earlier this month, where he visited the US-Mexico border wall and met with senior Republican lawmakers; and, according to SW1 logic, his recent weight loss and haircut. (Think Boris Johnson circa 2019).

But the most significant indication as to Jenrick’s intent is his furious penmanship for the Telegraph newspaper, another key arbiter of Conservative opinion. Since he resigned as immigration minister in December last year, Jenrick has written twelve op-eds for the Tory bible about issues as diverse as antisemitism “infecting” university campuses, proscribing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Keir Starmer’s “complicity” in the woke takeover of institutions, ending the “war against landlords”, net zero and the UK’s “changing” transatlantic alliance with America. Suella Braverman has written four Telegraph articles over the same period, by contrast. 

The Kemi question

But if the former immigration minister’s ambition is beyond doubt, how might he fare against other contenders — especially frontrunner Kemi Badenoch?

Much has been in recent months of Badenoch’s leadership credentials, and especially of her ability to maintain her standing among the party membership despite her association with Sunak’s soon-to-be-ancien régime. The much-reported ConservativeHome cabinet league table, formed from a survey of party members, features Badenoch highly indeed. In July last year, her approval rating was a positive 57.9. (This has hardly budged since: August, +59; September, +65; October, +67; November, +63.4; December, +63.9); January, +58.8).

Badenoch’s placement here as a grassroots favourite is worth taking seriously — especially as it comes according to a metric that can produce significant fluctuations. James Cleverly has been and gone from the top spot, while a recent riser is Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton Harris. 

But culture warrior Badenoch has baggage, too: her attack-inclined politics is both her most potent strength — and her greatest weakness. In this way, as her credentials are tested in a coming contest, with rivals gunning for the assumed frontrunner, it will be worth watching how Badenoch’s combative style holds up. And before that, even, a high-profile brawl with former Post Office boss Henry Stauton could spurn some of the business and trade secretary’s, admittedly abundant, political capital. 

Moreover, while Badenoch has right now successfully squared the circle regarding her grassroots popularity in an unpopular government, this could prove rather tricker after an election defeat. Contenders from outside the Sunakian tent will lampoon those who stayed in government for failing to make their mark. One pertinent lesson from the first Conservative leadership contest of 2022 is that a contender needs to start from a strong footing; Liz Truss was able to frame her battle with Rishi Sunak as purist vs wet — and the now-PM failed to meaningfully challenge the terms of that debate. In a leadership contest, if you are explaining you are losing, and Badenoch risks beginning on the backfoot. It arguably creates room for another rightwing riser.

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Jenrick’s pathway

Robert Jenrick’s more congenial, mild-mannered politics reflects a significant difference in strategy to the firebrand demeanour of Badenoch. This approach, simply, might bode better in a multi-candidate leadership race in which the challenge will be to unite the right amid competing egos and personal animosities.  

But more pertinently, unlike Badenoch, Jenrick will have a story to tell about a potential Conservative routing and how he could have thwarted it. Indeed, the former immigration minister will merely expand on the message he majored on after his resignation last December: Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda Bill will not work, cannot work and the government is risking electoral armageddon in insisting it might. 

With this statement, which drove the significant Conservative rebellion at the bill’s committee stage, Jenrick intended to outbid Sunak in the short term — but also his leadership competitors in the long term — on what it means to be an authentic Conservative. The level of noise Jenrick and his allies made during the Rwanda Bill’s committee stage means no non-“Spartan” can reasonably say they weren’t warned. “I told you so!”, Jenrick will in effect charge, if the Rwanda plan manages but a few flights before it is stalled by ECHR rule-39 injunctions.

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On top of this, having acted as an integral force within the “five families” of Conservative right cliques, Jenrick has a base of support within the party. Indeed, the deference with which the former immigration minister was treated through the Rwanda Bill’s parliamentary stages by his fellow rebels was remarkable. The New Conservatives’ Danny Kruger thanked him for his “important work”; Sir Simon Clarke praised Jenrick for his “considerable political and personal courage”; and Tom Hunt argued Jenrick “knows [the Rwanda plan] issue better than anyone else”. If much of the next Conservative leadership contest is characterised by faction hustings with challengers competing for a series of endorsements, Jenrick stands in good stead. 

The fight on the right

The fight on the right is, of course, a feature of any Conservative leadership contest with candidates consecutively whittled down by MP ballot after MP ballot. In 2022, Liz Truss bested Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman, picking up their endorsements in turn, to enter the membership vote stage as the chosen “rightwing” candidate. Boris Johnson ultimately defeated Dominic Raab to do the same in 2019. While much of this characterisation is based on “vibes”, the fight on the right in 2024/25 looks set to outperform recent precedent with its brutality. Rightwing runners and riders like former home secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman are reported to hold personal grudges after years of animus.

Jenrick, the mild-mannered former lawyer, stands apart from such competitors because he is universally — and therefore uniquely — well-regarded on the right. Kemi Badenoch, after a high-profile tussle last year with the European Research Group and her “role” in ousting Boris Johnson as PM, boasts no such status.

More broadly, Jenrick’s pitch as a converted moderate who slowly turned against his party’s migration stance could cut through more meaningfully than Braverman’s positioning as the ever-ambitious, always-posturing ex-home secretary. Unlike Braverman, Jenrick could stress that he is by nature an adept administrator who has served loyally in successive ministries including, briefly, Liz Truss’.

Braverman’s biggest challenge in a future leadership contest will be confronting the scale and depth of ill-feeling in the Conservative Parliamentary Party against her. In this way, there is a sense that by openly freelancing on the frontbench throughout 2023, Braverman broke rank too early and too aggressively. And, as is the case with Badenoch, Braverman’s ambition rose ahead of running any great office — rather than because of it. Both competed in the first 2022 Conservative leadership race and won cabinet posts on account of better-than-expected performances. A potentially pertinent trend in Conservative leadership contests going back to 2005 (if you ignore Boris Johnson’s brief 2016 candidature) suggests MPs who have never fought for the leadership end up besting their try-again colleagues.

Another lesson of recent leadership contests, and one that Jenrick has clearly digested, is that “unity” is overrated. Whether it’s Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt or Sajid Javid, triangulation appears to be a losing strategy — especially, one supposes, since contenders in the initial MP-voting stages are ultimately narrowed to a final two, with loyalists voting as a bloc either for a moderate or rightwinger. At best, like Hunt in 2019, such an approach will see you safely through into the final stage of a contest; but the Conservative membership prefers their contenders to be uncompromising. Moreover, with the Conservative Party now so divided between “one nation” and “five families” groupings, this trend only looks set to harden in a 2024/25 contest. It is an observation that bodes poorly for James Cleverly’s potential candidacy, too. 

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The dark horse?

In the end, Jenrick’s decision to restyle himself as a trenchant but steadily competent rightwinger could make him a dark horse in the leadership contest (likely) to come. A politician whose principles mirror those of the Conservative selectorate, but who also exudes competent vibes, might be what the grassroots have sorely lacked in recent champions (Truss, Johnson) — and therefore desperately want. That appears to be Jenrick’s calculation, in any case.

Now, if the former immigration minister can continue to bolster his rightwing credentials and occupy headlines, his odds to be the next Conservative leader will shorten in turn. The bookies presently place him between 18/1 and 10/1.

However, before he can assume the Conservative crown, Jenrick will have to beat off a crowded field of rightwingers. His pathway, therefore — like the rest of the rightwing pack — relies on uniting his section of the party and smashing the wets. 

As a former wet, Jenrick might be the person to do it.

Josh Self is Editor of, follow him on Twitter here. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.