The Speaker
Saturday, 20 April 2024 – 22:06
Theresa May

Who could replace Theresa May as PM?

As the conclusion of Theresa May’s premiership comes ever closer, the ongoing battle for the embattled throne of Tory leadership becomes more hotly contested.

The candidates have been hedging their bets for almost two years, knowing that the time for the Prime Minister to leave could come at any point. Now that she has promised to resign if her Brexit deal gets passed by the Commons, the many stalls of different characters are all gunning for the top spot.

Although he commands a widespread appeal in the membership of his own party and some parts of the public, Boris Johnson is most definitely not admired by a large proportion of his colleagues in Westminster. His desire to be leader has never been hidden, and if a leadership election is held later this year as expected, he will almost certainly decide to throw his hat in the ring.

If Boris can command respect among Brexit-supporting Tory MPs, he is less successful with many others. Remainer MPs want a new figure, such as Jeremy Hunt, who has been courting many Parliamentarians. Hunt, the current Foreign Secretary, is seen as a reliable candidate, who will not pander to the European Research Group. Hunt served as Health Secretary at the time of the unpopular Conservative austerity programme, and his brand with the public may not have recovered since. The amount of MPs who back him in Westminster is into the triple-figures, but there is a concern that if elected, Hunt will struggle to put the party on the front-foot come the next election.

The Cabinet is awash with potential contenders. Dominic Raab, who gave up his short stint as Brexit Secretary in December, is also looking for support. He is a younger, less divisive figure than Johnson, but his support base is still small, and his appeal to Remainers minuscule. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, is also highly ambitious. Sajid Javid had been the front-runner upon his appointment as Home Secretary, but his decisions around the revoking Shamima Begum’s citizenship have led to his brand as a reforming Thatcherite starting to dwindle.

Michael Gove is still recovering from his catastrophic miscalculation in 2016 when he betrayed Johnson and stood for the leadership himself. That said, he is still popular with around 50-60 of the Parliamentary Party and could be a crucial figure if he decides to back a specific candidate and not run again. As Education Secretary, he was widely unpopular, with his drastic reforms, which still stain his career and public reputation.

The group of soft Brexiteers who have been urging the Prime Minister to pursue a Customs Union option may hold the largest amount of sway when the leadership election comes, assuming that May is out of power by the summer. They are likely to put their backing behind a Tory moderniser, such as Matt Hancock, Javid or Hunt. With the hardline Brexiteers undecided as to who they want to lead the next part of the trade talks with Europe, the option of a soft Brexiteer taking Britain may be enough to split the party even more. The next Prime Minister will also be under pressure to have an early General Election, but whether their party will be able to finally be reconciled after years of splits over Europe is another matter entirely.

Theresa May has failed to contain the anger that has enveloped her party’s fortunes, but a new leader will face exactly the same challenges. With a Labour Party that still lags down behind the Tories in many polls, any new candidate will have to use the great public disenfranchisement with Westminster to their own success. The question still remains, however: can the Conservatives find a candidate to bring them together?

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