By a margin of 230 votes, Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union was defeated in the House of Commons, the largest defeat in history. It is the latest in a series of humiliations and embarrassing defeats endured by Prime Minister May since losing her majority in the ill-advised 2017 General Election. Despite this, May survives as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservatives – battling on with such resilience and commands great admiration. As Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party said during the no-confidence vote in May’s Government: “To suffer the humiliation on a global stage that she has done would have finished off weaker people far sooner.”
May remains safe for at least another year. In December last year, she defeated a push by her Brexiteer MP’s to oust her as party leader – winning the support of 200 MP’s as 117 MP’s expressed no confidence in her leadership. Under Conservative Party rules, no challenge to her leadership can be held for a full year.
It was no secret, to the despair of many Tory backbenchers, that Mrs May sought to lead the Conservatives to the next election, due in 2022 –in part an attempt to atone for the party’s poor performance in the 2017 Election. But she has signalled her intention, prior to the vote of confidence in her leadership, to step aside as leader before the next election; even if she did not lay out a specific timeline. In so doing, she has effectively fired the starting gun to replace her as leader – and there is no shortage of MP’s who are keen to replace her.
The frontrunner is, arguably, Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary. Entering Parliament in 2010, he was fast-tracked into a ministerial career and entered Cabinet in 2014. He served relatively unimpressive stints as Culture and Business Secretaries in the Cameron Government, bar coming across as completely ignorant and unprepared in the Port Talbot crisis when a major steelworks plant was offered for sale, placing at risk 40,000 jobs in 2016. He was demoted to Communities Secretary when May came to power but was subsequently elevated to Home Secretary following the resignation of Amber Rudd in 2018 over the Windrush scandal. Javid has a long history of Euroscepticism but supported Remain in the referendum out of loyalty to David Cameron.
Indeed, Javid is the face of a modern Tory party with a compelling backstory. His father is a Pakistani migrant, coming to the UK with just £1 in his pocket. Growing up in a family of seven, his high school career advisor advised him to pursue a career as a television repairman. Instead, he graduated Exeter University with degrees in Economics and Politics and went into investment banking, earning a reported salary of £3 million per year before entering Parliament. It was reported in December last year that Javid has been actively courting fellow Cabinet Ministers and backbenchers for an expected leadership bid. He will, however, face critics who fear Javid’s lack of charisma and seeming inability to energise party activists.
Fellow Cabinet member, Jeremy Hunt – the Foreign Secretary – has been less subtle concerning his ambitions for higher office, admitting in an interview with the Daily Telegraph last December that he would like to have a “crack at the top job”. Despite campaigning as a remainer in the 2016 referendum he has signalled that he would vote leave if given the chance again. This has led fellow MP’s to question the ideological commitment to either the leave or remain camps. However, he remains upbeat about Britain’s place in a post-Brexit world. In that same interview, Hunt declared that Britain would “flourish and prosper” if it walked away without a deal and has also opined elsewhere that Britain could take a leaf from Singapore in becoming a “low-tax haven”. The son of an admiral, a distant relation to the Queen and one of the richer MP’s in Parliament, Hunt was contemporaries with Cameron and Boris Johnson at Oxford University where he graduated with the Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree. A brief stint as Culture Secretary saw him oversee the delivery of the 2012 London Olympic Games but it will be his time as Britain’s longest serving Health Secretary which will be – so far – his political epitaph in a tenure marred by conflicts with medical professional bodies and unions. He resisted a move by May to move him to the Business portfolio in a 2018 cabinet reshuffle and was elevated to Foreign Secretary when Johnson exited the government last July. Hunt speaks fluent Japanese having been an English teacher in Japan early in his career.
Dominic Raab’s stock has also risen after he resigned as Brexit Secretary in November last year over the withdrawal agreement with the EU. Raab, whose Jewish father fled to Britain from the now Czech Republic in 1938 to escape the Nazi’s, read law at Oxford and at a master’s level at Cambridge University. First elected in 2010, he is seen as one of the Tories’ rising stars – initially practicing as a lawyer and later joining the Foreign Office. A fierce Eurosceptic , Raab launched what The Sun called a “thinly-veiled leadership bid” during a speech calling for tax cuts post-Brexit at the Centre for Policy Studies earlier this month, a think-tank with links to the Conservative Party. The most ideologically pure of the main leadership contenders, Raab has had a contentious relationship with May. According to Rosa Prince’s biography of May, The Enigmatic Prime Minister, May never forgets a slight or those who’ve wronged her – dispatching George Osborne and Michael Gove from her first Cabinet. Raab, who was sacked from his junior ministerial role when May first came to power, had a public spat in 2011 with May who accused him of fuelling “gender warfare” over an article he wrote on how men were getting “a raw deal” in the workplace and were victims of “flagrant discrimination”. He has not shied away from his comments – declaring that he was a meritocrat, but also that he was making a point about double standards and how the value of equality is corroded if consistency is not maintained. Raab is said to have the same sandwich every day – a chicken Caesar and bacon baguette, a superfruit pot and a vitamin volcano smoothie from Pret a Manger.
Amber Rudd, the Works and Pensions Secretary, is a favourite of remainers and the liberal wing of the party. She had sound performances during a national debate during the 2016 EU referendum and again standing in for Theresa May in a leaders’ debate during the General Election. Appointed as Home Secretary following May’s ascension to the Prime Ministership, she was forced to resign during the Windrush Scandal after being accused of misleading a parliamentary committee on forced deportations. She was later cleared in an internal government probe which found that the civil service had provided her with the wrong advice, absolving her of any personal blame. A solid parliamentary performer, Rudd hails from the remain wing of the party and has previously flagged to prefer a second referendum than a No Deal Brexit. She is also defeating a very slim majority of just 345 votes in her own constituency of Hastings and Rye, a seat set to be high on the target list for the Opposition.
While Javid, Hunt and Raab remain the leading contenders, it is my no means a definitive list. There are other potential contenders, some who have expressed interest in the top job who could possibly put their hands up for the top job. They are loosely categorised into the following categories.
There are the after ran’s, MP’s who have run for the position in the past. In this category include Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House of Commons. Leadsom had an underwhelming performance as Environment Secretary, a reward for stepping aside in the 2016 leadership race for May. Had the Prime Minister won a majority in the snap election, Leadsom was said to have been on the chopping block – demoted to the position of Leader of the House of Commons after the election with the promise of more prolific media appearances in order to placate her, despite demanding the Home or Foreign Secretary briefs. David Davis, a former SAS soldier and May’s first Brexit Secretary, has long been touted as a potential leader of the party. The runner-up to David Cameron in 2005, Davis will be an experienced pair of hands, having been an MP for nearly 32 years. Lastly, there’s Michael Gove – sacked from May’s first Cabinet over a spat over Islamic schools, he returned as Environment Secretary after the election. A Leave voter, Gove was said to be mistrusted by May following his Machiavellian betrayal of Boris Johnson ahead of the 2016 leadership race. His stock has also since risen, delivering an impassioned speech for the government during the no-confidence vote in January. Johnson too should also be placed in this group, having nearly launched his own bid in 2016 prior to being betrayed by Gove. The former Mayor of London, who was conflicted over whether to support remain or leave, delivered his own pitch for leader in post-Brexit Britain, promising tax cuts, stringent immigration controls and reducing the prosperity gap between London and the rest of the UK.
In the next-generation of Brexiteers category, there are Penny Mourdant, the International Development Secretary and Esther McVey, the former Work and Pensions Secretary. Both are considered rising stars within the party. Mourdant currently serves as a reservist with the Royal Navy while McVey – who holds former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s old seat of Tatton – has a background in media. Both are Leave voters with McVey quitting Cabinet in November last year over May’s Brexit deal and Mourdant publicly wavering before deciding to stay on. McVey had previously faced calls to quit over the roll-out of Universal Credit, a major reform to the UK’s benefits system while Mourdant’s tenure has been relatively uncontroversial.
Tories may decide to skip a whole generation altogether, placing their trust in the “young ‘uns”. These include Matt Hancock, aged 40, Secretary for Health and Social Care, having previously served in the Culture portfolio. Hancock, who launched his own smartphone app a year ago, would offer a fresh, energetic and even youthful face for the Tory Party. Not least that there is a video of Hancock on YouTube singing and strutting some moves to a rendition of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Gavin Williamson, 42, is the also another name touted. The baby-faced Defence Secretary was elevated to one of the four great offices of state, despite no prior ministerial experience. Williamson served as May’s campaign manager during the 2016 leadership election and previously served as Chief Government Whip. Hancock and Williamson are not rumoured to be prepping for a leadership contest but may be wooed to enter.
And then there are the outsiders, occupied solely by Jacob Rees-Mogg. The MP for North Somerset, who has been in Parliament since 2010, has seen his national profile increased significant in recent years. Mogg has constantly denied further leadership ambitions but was reported by Tim Shipman in his book Fall Out, to have hosted a dinner for family and friends “to celebrate his status as a potential leadership contender” with champagne toasts made “to Moggmentum and Downing Street”.
To win the leadership, contenders must nominate themselves and be seconded by a fellow MP. If there is just one nomination, that person is elected; if there are two then the nominations are put to the membership of the party and if there are three or more, a ballot will take place. MP’s vote for their preference to be leader, with the contender with the lowest number of votes eliminated, every Tuesday and Thursday until there are two final contenders who will be put to the membership of the party.
Not all contenders mentioned here will make bids with alliances likely to be formed between candidates. However, Theresa May’s ability to survive for so long as Prime Minister despite so many setbacks and humiliations is because of the fact that the Conservatives remain bitterly divided with no single candidate able to emerge. The main contenders each carry their own setbacks – Javid lacks charisma, Hunt lacks principle and Raab lacks the ability to unite. If May resigns over Brexit, as unlikely as that is, Raab or Davis are in prime positions to seize the leadership as leading Brexiteers. But if Britain does exit the European Union, the contours of the next election will be fought on which candidate is best able to seize the opportunities that Brexit offers, to bring a divided party together but most of all, to advance a bold conservative agenda which will address the issues ignored because of Brexit. If such is the case, the race remains wide open.
Words by Ian Tan