If Johnson falls, who rises?

If Boris Johnson should fall, who rises?

This week the prime minister faced both his biggest backbench Conservative rebellion in the House of Commons, and his most significant electoral kicking in the North Shropshire by-election.  

This comes on the back of a fortnight of allegations in which the outside possibility of the prime minister being forced from office began receiving more sustained attention.

Should the situation turn further against Boris Johnson, we consider who is positioned to take his place, based on the bookmakers’ 7 listed favourites:

Option 1- Rishi Sunak

Variously described as ‘Dishy Rishi’, ‘Britain’s economic Jedi’ or  ‘the Instagram chancellor’ ’, Rishi Sunak took on the job of chancellor just weeks prior to lockdown 1.0 following Sajid Javid’s resignation from the role. 

After a stellar career in investment, Sunak was first elected as the Conservative MP for Richmond, North Yorkshire, in 2015, first  entering the Cabinet in 2019 as chief secretary to the Treasury.

Sunak’s inaugural budget took place in the thick of the initial Covid outbreak in March 2020, in which he allocated £12 billion toward tackling the pandemic; later launching the £330 billion emergency ‘furlough’ scheme.

While Covid restrictions had an unsettling effect on the UK’s economy—especially given that the government remains open to further restrictions in response to new variants— the Treasury’s extensive intervention during the pandemic could well provide Sunak with a positive legacy as chancellor. 

His YouGov approval rating among voters sits at 31%, down from 35% in October, a modest mid-term showing that makes him the most popular Conservative politician as it stands.

The popularity of a would-be Conservative prime minister among the party grassroots is arguably more vital however, given that in a normal leadership election, their support is required for a candidate to become party leader.

Sunak came in at a respectable ninth place on Conservative Home‘s latest Cabinet League table, published 30 November, with +45 points. This is miles ahead of the prime minister whose rating among Tory members has plummeted to -17.2, his only negative rating since autumn 2020.

The biggest question is perhaps not whether Sunak could succeed in a leadership tussle, but if he would want to so soon. Sunak is just 41, around a decade younger than most of the other would-be candidates, so it is possible that he would prefer to wait till his children are older, and bide his time rather than rush into the top job before the next general election?

His current ranking as the richest MP has drawn criticism from some quarters, however the relative wealth of most winning prime ministers even in recent history means this line of attack would be unlikely to dent his chances of reaching No 10.

  • SCORE:
  • Response to Covid:  8/10
  • Popularity with voters: 8/10
  • Popularity with Tory grassroots: 8/10
  • Presentation: 8/10

Leadership Possibility Score –  32/40

Option 2- Liz Truss

Freshly minted foreign secretary Elizabeth “Liz” Truss is by far the most popular candidate among the Tory grassroots, having topped the ConHome league tables since last November.

Born in Leeds to Labour-supporting parents, and president of the Liberal Democratic society in her Oxford days, Truss has served as the MP for South West Norfolk since 2010. She  has become one of the Cabinet’s longest serving and senior members since being made environment secretary in 2014.

Her tenure as international trade secretary was perceived as successful, as she took on the role of organising post Brexit trade deals with third party countries. 

She presents herself as a vocal supporter of free-market principles and has ties to neoliberal think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute. Unlike many of the free-market Tory ranks— Sunak included—Truss did not support ‘Leave’ in the 2016 EU referendum. In 2017 she claimed had “changed her mind” on the issue, but, this may not be enough to convince the hard Brexiteers among the Tory base that she is authentic in her stance.

The international focus of her roles mean she has had little involvement in the response to the pandemic. This could lead to questions over whether she has sufficient grasp of Covid policies to jump into the top seat in a crisis.  

It is perhaps Truss’ focus on global affairs that has led to her relatively modest profile on the national stage, with just 51% of the public telling YouGov that they have heard of her in contrast to Sunak’s 96%. It may be that voters just don’t know enough about her, for a more considered assessment of her popularity to be made. 

  • SCORE:
  • Response to Covid:  4/10
  • Popularity with voters: 4/10
  • Popularity with Tory grassroots: 9/10
  • Presentation: 6/10

Leadership Possibility Score –  23/40

Option 3- Sajid Javid

Sajid Javid became the first person of colour to hold one of the ‘Great Offices of State’ following his appointment as home secretary in 2018.

He achieved fourth place in the 2019 leadership race, with his failure probably in part tied to his support of ‘Remain’ in 2016.

Javid was promoted to chancellor upon Johnson’s ascendancy. However he resigned in February 2020 after Dominic Cummings’ sacked a Treasury aide without Javid’s permission.

Considered a safe pair of hands, Javid was appointed to replace Matt Hancock after he resigned following evidence that he broke social distancing rules with a female aide.

Upon taking over, Javid positioned himself as being more skeptical of certain Covid restrictions, having criticised compulsory vaccination, vaccine passports and social distancing measures. His media appearances are generally polished, and while just 23% of the public report liking him, that 29% are neutral means he has an opportunity to improve his likability. 

It is also possible that Javid’s background could be an electoral asset, being born to Pakistani Muslim parents in a working class area of Rochdale and growing up on the highly deprived Stapleton Road area of Bristol. This could position him well to square up against Labour better than many of his peers.

Moreover Javid could easily dodge responsibility for the handling of the pandemic up until he replaced Matt Hancock, his approach going forward will be vital to any future leadership bid.  His position in the health hot seat does pose an under-current to his credibility should the government’s covid response not go well in the next couple of months. 

Javid’s ascendancy to the top spot, would also work with Conservative members. His popularity among the Tory grassroots currently rests just one point above Sunak, at +54.3.

  • SCORE:
  • Response to Covid:  8/10
  • Popularity with voters: 6/10
  • Popularity with Tory grassroots: 8/10
  • Presentation: 8/10

Leadership Possibility Score –  30/40

Option 4- Priti Patel

Home secretary Priti Patel has suffered a major collapse in her approval among Conservative party members, with her Conservative Home rating  having plummeted to 9th from bottom on +25 points, to 3rd from bottom on 0. Tone and manner aside, this decline has undoubtedly been impacted by her perceived handling of the Channel migrant crisis.

Her track record on other key issues is also under fire, with free speech campaigners on both left and right issuing highly critical rebukes of the ongoing police, crime, sentencing and courts bill.

Last November, a bullying inquiry into her conduct at the Home Office found that she had breached the ministerial code but did not resign as has previously been custom in such situations. This slew of bad press is likely one factor behind her unpopularity with the public at large, with YouGov estimating that 57% of British adults dislike her.

While she has not been front-and-centre of the government’s Covid response, footage has emerged of her telling Tory members that she was an “advocate” of closing Britain’s borders during the original Covid outbreak when no quarantine restrictions were placed on those arriving in the UK- arguably a factor behind the virus’ rapid spread in the country.

  • SCORE:
  • Response to Covid:  5/10
  • Popularity with voters 1/10
  • Popularity with Tory grassroots: 3/10
  • Presentation: 3/10

Leadership Possibility Score –  12/40

Option 5- Dominic Raab

A hard-line Brexiteer, he was appointed foreign secretary in 2019, after coming 6th in the Conservative leadership election that summer.

Demoted from the Foreign Office in the September 2021 reshuffle, Raab said to have been very angry at the move.  It came just a month after he had attracted criticism for being on holiday during the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Just last week a former foreign office desk officer claimed that fewer than 5% of the 75,000 to 150,000 Afghans who had applied for evacuation received any assistance due to the department’s chaotic handling of the crisis. 

His rating among Tory members is currently at +44.2 points, a hefty increase following his plummet to just +6.1 points following the Afghanistan crisis, and a sign that the stain of that affair could eventually fade even further.

Despite his temporary takeover when the prime minister was hospitalised with Covid last April,  his main gig as foreign secretary until September this year means he has not been massively associated with the government’s response. 

The biggest question mark over a potential Raab premiership is whether he will remain an MP. His South London seat of Esher and Walton is now marginal and, no doubt, the Liberal Democrats will seek to complete the scalp at the next election, potentially ruling him out of a future leadership bid entirely. The same problems in her then Hastings and Rye seat, were previously considered a barrier to Amber Rudd competing for the Conservative leadership.

  • SCORE:
  • Response to Covid:  6/10
  • Popularity with voters: 4/10
  • Popularity with Tory grassroots: 6/10
  • Presentation: 7/10

Leadership Possibility Score –  23/40

Option 6- Jeremy Hunt

Having been Johnson’s main rival in the 2019 leadership race, in which he was runner-up, Hunt has become something of an alternative voice during the Coronavirus pandemic.

As chair of the health select committee, Hunt was not slow to put forward alternative opinions on how the pandemic should be, or should have been, managed.

Hunt has long-been seen to lie on the more liberal wing of the Conservative party, having voted for ‘Remain’ at the 2016 referendum and supporting Theresa May’s trio of ‘meaningful’ Brexit votes in Parliament.

Although Hunt’s competent demeanour and middle-of-the-road outlook mean that he could well come to serve in a future Cabinet, his generally tough stance on Covid restrictions, close association with the May and Cameron eras, not to mention his controversial tenure as health secretary, make it unlikely that the Tory grassroots would back him as leader as it stands.

While his previous roles of health and foreign secretary, and his vying for the top job back in 2019 mean that 88% of the public are aware of him, just 17 per cent like him. This dismal rating would make it difficult for him to obtain the backing of the scores of MPs looking to hold onto seats gained during the 2019 general election.

Being outside of cabinet may have provided Hunt with more freedom to highlight the government’s perceived shortcomings, but it places him at a disadvantage in terms of profile among both MPs and Tory members, the latter of whom previously rejected him as leader in 2019.

  • SCORE:
  • Response to Covid:  8/10
  • Popularity with voters: 3/10
  • Popularity with Tory grassroots: 3/10
  • Presentation: 7/10

Leadership Possibility Score –  21/40

Option 7- Michael Gove

Michael Gove is the longest-serving minister in the Cabinet, and his successive stints in senior ministerial roles for over a decade mean that 90% of British adults are aware of him.

However given that 53% of these same voters report disliking him, his years at the top of British politics would likely disadvantage rather than bolster any leadership bid.

Gove has already been rejected twice as Conservative leader by party members in the last five years, coming third in both the 2016 and 2019 contests.

Although he remains on the list of possible contenders, Gove’s lengthy record at the heart of government means that any attempted rebrand would not want him front-and-centre. 

His experience and standing within the party mean he would be better placed as an interim, rather than a permanent leader.

  • SCORE:
  • Response to Covid:  5/10
  • Popularity with voters: 2/10
  • Popularity with Tory grassroots: 5/10
  • Presentation: 5/10

Leadership Possibility Score – 17/40

With events shifting rapidly by the day, the if, as well as the who, what, when, where and how of a Conservative leadership challenge remains uncertain.

Any process could be slow and party led, with internal displeasure (as seen with Theresa May and Iain Duncan-Smith’s leadership) leading to the usual full leadership election involving party members.

At the same time, events, potentially fresh and even more serious Christmas party allegations, or pressure around potential breaches of the ministerial code (such as those surrounding Lord Geidt’s investigation into the Downing Street flat refurbishment) could create circumstances in which the prime minister’s position became more untenable.

If that unfolds, the process to install a replacement will likely happen at an altogether faster speed.   

In the second scenario, and against the background of a grave and worsening pandemic situation, the conservative hierarchy would come under pressure to quickly agree around a single candidate, and certainly without the lengthy ‘vacuum of leadership’ process involving a vote by party members. 

In the latter scenario, senior Conservatives would surely gravitate to the least divisive and most credible candidate that was already in the heart of government.   Cue the historical comparisons to the stand off between Churchill and Halifax in 1940. Credibility, and the absolute desire to take the job on at this point in time, would then come to the fore.

The prime minister may of course see off his December difficulties, and without further revelations, that remains the most likely scenario.

In such a case, this article will then fade into an archive of political tittle-tattle, but it would be a brave move to discount the possibility of the current winter political storms turning nastier still.