Boris Johnson was the favourite to take over as Prime Minister but leadership contests in the Conservative party have a history of producing surprise results. Now no longer a candidate, the former Mayor of London was the early front-runner for the Conservative Party leadership. Universally known by the public, in possession of a proven track record of winning in a city like London where Labour have previously held a stranglehold and very popular with the Tory grassroots, his campaign seemed unassailable just 24 hours ago. This is the Conservative Party, however – and if history shows anything, it’s that the front-runner rarely wins. So it has proven to be with Boris. The role he will now play in the leadership contest is in flux: will he be a grenade-lobbing spoiler on the side lines, or passionately back someone amongst the field of rivals that, until only this morning, he led?
So who are the candidates?
The Justice Secretary’s eleventh-hour entry into the Conservative leadership race proved to be a fatal blow to the prospects of the front-runner, Boris Johnson. Throughout the Brexit campaign, Johnson and Gove stood side-by-side to make the case for Britain’s exit from the European Union; a partnership that was expected to transfer over to the leadership race. Instead, Gove issued a last-minute statement accusing Boris of being incapable of “providing the leadership or building the team for the task ahead". The key challenge for Michael Gove will be overcoming the chasm between his reputation inside the Conservative Party and in the country. Members of Parliament and Conservative activists who have worked with Gove speak highly of his considerate and courteous nature, zeal for policy reform and genuine Thatcherite credentials. In the country, however, he has been portrayed as aloof and out of touch; a perception that led to David Cameron essentially removing him from frontline, presentational duties during the 2015 General Election. Gove will be supported by the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, a leading voice on the centre-left of the party who strongly supported remaining in the EU had been expected to mount her own leadership challenge. Other key supporters include the Digital Minister Ed Vaziey, the cerebral Nick Boles, the Business, Innovation and Skills Minister and former Head of the Policy Exchange think tank, Dominic Raab (a regular media performer and well regarded by colleagues) and Priti Patel, whose fiery advocacy for Brexit made her a favourite with the Tory grassroots. While the race is rapidly developing, a number of declared Boris Johnson supporters are expected to defect to his camp.
Theresa May has been a ubiquitous figure on the Conservative Party’s front-bench ever since her appointment to the Shadow Cabinet in 1999. In this time, May has served as Conservative Party Chairman, Shadow Education Secretary, Shadow Transport Secretary, Shadow Local Government Secretary and Home Secretary. The post of Home Secretary has traditionally been viewed as a “poisoned chalice”, with a number of her immediate predecessors resigning over unforced errors and poor decision-making over critical issues related to immigration and national security. May has, however, hugely impressed during her time in office; working as much as twenty hours a day and possessing a razor-sharp knowledge of her portfolio. It is this image – that of an uber-competent, steely technocrat who will be able to steer her party and the country through tumultuous Brexit negotiations and a possible recession – that is her key appeal. May is never going to be viewed as fresh and exciting; more respected and trusted. On a policy level, May was one of the Conservative Party’s chief reformers; making a controversial speech at the party’s 2002 conference in which she argued they were seen as the “nasty party” with a lack of appeal to working families, women and ethnic minorities. As Home Secretary, she has taken a more traditional Conservative approach; backing tougher surveillance of terrorist suspects and backing stronger controls on immigration. Her support for Britain remaining in the European Union is likely to rankle amongst some of her colleagues and may cost her votes – despite her endorsement by the pro-Brexit Leader of the House Chris Grayling. Other key supporters include the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary Gavin Williamson, Justine Greening (International Development Secretary) and David Mundell (Scottish Secretary).
The 44 year old Work and Pensions Secretary is the youngest of the candidates to enter the race and by far the least politically experienced. In a rare move, his campaign is being expressly billed as a joint ticket - "Crabbid" - with the Business, Innovation and Skills Secretary Sajid Javid. Crabb and Javid have been keen to stress their humble credentials – one raised in a council house, the other the son of a bus driver from Pakistan – in an effort to sharpen the Conservative Party’s appeal to working class communities. The “Crabbid” ticket has drawn early support from a curious range of MPs, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Parliamentary Private Secretary Chris Skidmore and good number of MPs sitting for marginal seats in the north of England.
Dr Liam Fox
First elected at the 1992 general election, Liam Fox is the longest-serving Member of Parliament to enter the leadership race. Indeed, Fox finished third behind David Davis and David Cameron the last time the party leadership was contested in 2005. On the right of the Conservative Party, Fox’s campaign is likely to focus on traditional Thatcherite platform of tax-cuts, support for the reinforcement of transatlantic ties and an uncompromising attitude towards Brexit. His early supporters, which include the veteran Eurosceptic and former Defence Minister Sir Gerald Howarth, mirror this policy outlook. While Fox was a visible presence throughout the Brexit campaign, he has been out of ministerial office for close to five years and there is a perception that, while he may re-join the Cabinet following the leadership election, his chance at the top job may have come and gone.
Along with Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom was an eleventh-hour entrant to the Conservative leadership contest. While the Energy Minister and former Economic Secretary to the Treasury has enjoyed a high profile in Parliament for the past few years, her feisty media performances during the Brexit campaign impressed many of her colleagues – especially those who are keen to see a fresh face as the next Conservative Party leader. Leadsom comes from the libertarian centre-right of the party, advocating a free-market approach to economics while being strongly supportive of the party’s efforts to widen its appeal to women and ethnic minority communities. A popular figure amongst her parliamentary colleagues – especially fellow members of the 2010 intake – Leadsom is viewed as articulate, tenacious and voluble. She is supported by former Children’s Minister Tim Loughton and backbenchers Tom Pursglove and Michael Tomlinson; both members of the 2015 intake.