LONDON — After mortally wounding Boris Johnson, the U.K’s Conservatives need another savior.
It took more than 24 hours of sustained pressure and top-level resignations, plus months of political scandal and bruising electoral losses, for Johnson to confirm he’ll bow out.
He leaves the Tories with a brand that’s once again tanking among the public, and party insiders are now praying they’ve made the right choice.
“We have to make sure we get someone who can turn the tide,” one senior Conservative official said.
Johnson’s populist campaigning style and vow to break a long-running deadlock on Brexit helped him rejuvenate a battered and bruised party in the 2019 general election, and win big in seats long held by the opposition Labour Party.
But fumbled responses to a string of scandals — and humiliating electoral losses — brought time on his premiership before it hit the three-year mark.
Still, Tories have genuine hope of a comeback under a new leader, even if there’s no clear sense of who that might be.
“We have the time and the majority in parliament to calm things down, get things back on track and be prepared for the next general election,” one top Conservative activist said.
Johnson’s promise to quit kicks off a months’-long process to pick a new leader. There’s no anointed successor to swoop in and get on with rebuilding, and the field of Tory candidates is the most open in years.
A host of potential contenders — ranging from Cabinet old hands to outsiders who’ve steered well clear of the Johnson drama — make the race hard to predict.
The Conservative Party is arguably among the most successful political movements in the democratic world. They’ve been winning elections since the 1830s and dominated British politics for most of the 20th century. Yet, despite confidence in some quarters that a turnaround is possible, they have form in choosing dud, and ousting Johnson brings big risks.
In recent memory, Johnson’s immediate predecessor Theresa May was a terrible campaigner, while Iain Duncan Smith, who led the Tories against Labour’s triumphant Tony Blair, was widely derided for his lack of charisma and knifed by his party after promising to get things back on track.
Some Westminster-watchers see the party, which has already cycled through three prime ministers since 2015, approaching a point of maximum danger.
“The problem with choosing a new leader is there is no accurate way of testing how good they would be at the job without giving them the job,” said Chris Curtis from polling firm Opinium.
“This means the current situation is incredibly risky for the Tories, because if they do end up choosing someone who isn’t up to it, they are probably too late to change course again before the next election.”
Got Brexit done (we hope)
Still, Johnson has made some things easier. By resolving the Brexit issue (at least, the bits that don’t include rules on Northern Ireland), he’s helped nix a thorny question that has loomed over Tory leadership contests for years.
“The party accepts that Brexit has been done and will move on from that now,” predicted the senior Conservative official quoted above. Some expect the party to choose a pro-Brexit leader but not an obvious hardliner, so as to have a figurehead who can also appeal to people who voted to remain in the EU.
In place of Brexit, the leadership race is destined to become a more traditional debate about Britain’s economic woes, including soaring inflation and sluggish growth. Expect plenty of tax-cutting promises to please the party faithful.
“Politics generally will focus exclusively in the next two years on the cost of living crisis, and we have to be a party that shows we have a plan for dealing with that,” the same official said.
That could put Rishi Sunak in a strong position. As the U.K.’s top finance minister until his dramatic resignation this week, Sunak knows how the all-powerful Treasury works, although he’s taken his own share of political damage amid a row over his wife’s tax affairs.
Prominent Tories Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Steve Baker are also expected to focus on their business acumen and grasp of economics if they join the fray. The latter in particular is a hardline free-marketeer in the vein of Margaret Thatcher. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will also be among those flaunting their Thatcherite credentials.
Other possible contenders, such as Ben Wallace and Penny Mordaunt, are expected to talk up their defense and security experience amid the war in Ukraine. And Johnson’s Home Secretary Priti Patel could stress her hardline stance on illegal immigration, a touchstone issue for many Conservative voters.
Watch out too for candidates who’ve been kept out of the Johnson government and will want to offer a clean break. Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt are no allies of Johnson and considered on the softer side of the party when it comes to economics.
Yet despite that crowded field, there is a sense in Westminster that most of the contenders will run on broadly similar ideological platforms, and that existing relationships between the candidates and the colleagues needed to get them onto the final ballot of two will be more important. “There’s a willingness to look beyond specific ideologies at the moment,” said Conservative peer and polling expert Robert Hayward.
Expect a significant focus on restoring trust in politics and getting the machinery of government to actually function after Johnson’s chaotic spell.
“You need a combination of someone who has honesty and integrity but also makes the tough decisions and wields the knife when required,” the activist quoted at the top of this article said.
Appealing to the electorate
A big challenge Johnson now leaves for the Tories is holding onto the unusual coalition of voters that swept him to power in 2019.
As an unconventional politician who could reach parts of the electorate others couldn’t, Johnson won over places in Northern England long held by Labour without turning off the Tories’ traditional base of richer, southern voters.
His Brexit promises, willingness to spend big, and a vow to rejuvenate — or “level up” — forgotten parts of the country, were crucial, but polling data and recent elections suggest that support is rapidly sapping away.
“The middle class constituencies I think will be the first target, to stop the advance of the Liberal Democrats,” said Hayward. “But at the same time I think there will be a strong emphasis still on leveling up, both in the Midlands and the North.” That’s no easy balance to strike.
For now, attention is focused on when exactly Tory members will get their say.
Conservative bosses hope the contest could be done and dusted before MPs return from their summer break in September — although rows with the grassroots about hustings schedules mean the race could drag on longer.
Whoever the Conservative faithful opt for, it will mark just the latest high-stakes gamble for a party that’s proven ruthlessly able to shape-shift in a bid to hold power.
“The Conservatives appeared to be dead in the water politically in 1997 when Tony Blair won a significant majority for Labour,” said Jeremy Black, a Conservative historian. “The one thing politics shows is that political parties we’re told are dead can come back again.”