Thu, 18 July 2024

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The House Live All
By Ben Guerin
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Jockeying Begins For Leadership Of Battered Tory Party

8 min read

After a damning defeat at the polls yesterday, the long rebuild of the Conservative Party can finally begin.

But with just 121 Tory MPs left and deep divisions over the future direction of the party, who will they pick to lead them following the darkest days of their worst electoral defeat and, perhaps one day, back to electoral success?

The Conservative Party board are expected to meet on Monday to discuss the potential terms of a leadership contest. It is the board, in consultation with the future chair of the Conservatives’ 1922 committee, who will make a plan for an interim leader and any Tory leadership race.

Several Conservative MPs told PoliticsHome they would prefer a longer leadership election – taking six months through the summer, party conference season and concluding in December. It would allow time for candidates who are less well-known to build their profile, like David Cameron did in 2005, and give time to get through tough conversations on what the party's future will look like.

“This summer will be a blood letting of recriminations so it is not sensible to have that at the same time as leadership,” one Tory MP warns. “No one will listen to us for six months. We then have two years to rebuild and a year to set out our stall before Starmer calls the next election.”

Although there is a need to move on from this all-time low in the party’s history, choosing the right leader will be crucial if they are to take the fight to Labour in 2029. 

In his resignation speech, Sunak promised to stay on as interim leader until arrangements for his successor are in place. “Him staying as interim leader until the permanent is crowned is the responsible thing to do,” one senior Tory MP says. “It's going to be really miserable, and it's probably the least bad option rather than anything else.”

However, another MP recognised that “there is a mood to move on” and that their colleagues “might ask him to stand down”. Nothing is certain, as one Tory source says: “Anyone who tells you they know what's going to happen is lying.”

“I do want the stability of not having an instantaneous leadership contest that will lead to all sorts of chaos. However, I also don't really see that Rishi is going to be able to hold things together,” one Tory MP says.

“Of the people to survive it will be very hard to do anything other than blame Rishi for an awful lot of what's happened.”

Many on the right of the party favour a quick leadership election, with one believing that dragging out the leadership contest would be a “death knell” for the party. “It would be very self indulgent. It would just be Conservatives mucking around again. We need to get on with it and then we can start having a proper opposition,” the MP cautions. 

Kemi Badenoch is the early favourite to succeed Sunak. Her inner circle includes colleagues from her 2017 intake, like Alex Burghart, Julia Lopez and Neil O’Brien, who all held on to their seats and can help the former business secretary tap up support in the party. 

Badenoch’s team kept a low profile over the campaign, unlike a number of her rivals who haven’t been shy of vying for new endorsements, but even pre-election were scouting potential shadow cabinet ministers. 

She also benefits from running for the leadership previously in 2022, earning encouraging remarks from former Tory donors like Jeremy Hosking and John Armitage, who have previously floated returning to the party under her leadership. 

The former business secretary is a favourite of the party membership for her no-nonsense attitude. But one Tory source is not so enthusiastic. They say: “Kemi will not work. She will fall out with people left, right and centre, and it will just collapse in about 18 months.”

Despite fears Robert Jenrick might lose his seat, the Newark MP will be delighted by his 3,572 majority, especially having toured all parts of the country to try and shore up leadership support.

“He is so obviously only interested in being in Parliament if he's a reasonable sized player and that is why he has been pursuing this double or quits kind of strategy – it has worked,” one senior Tory says.


Many Tory MPs told PoliticsHome they had texts and calls from Jenrick throughout the campaign “checking in” and offering constituency visits. One exasperated MP reveals they had to come up with “creative excuses” to keep Jenrick away after he wouldn’t stop calling. 

Jenrick – whose strategising started quite some months before the election – is said to have been keenly focused on winning over the new Tory MPs. He has wooed colleagues by inviting them for lunches and dinners to discuss his leadership and get a sense of what role they might want in a Jenrick-led shadow cabinet – though it's not clear how successful he has been at winning over support.

The former immigration minister has trimmed down and re-styled his image in a bid to appear prime ministerial, as one MP remarked: “Rob Jenrick even got a more right-wing haircut to fit his leadership bid!” 

Priti Patel, too, has been quietly eyeing up the leadership for some time. She has wisely kept her distance from the dying days of Sunak’s government and is credited for not going public with her criticisms. Friends say she has not been pitching herself during the election but is expected to make a run when the contest opens, though she has not got as much of a strategy in place as some others.

Priti PatelTom Tugendhat is the leading option for the One Nation wing of the party and, like Jenrick, made plenty of visits to Conservative candidates during the election campaign.

“Tom broadly took the view that his seat was genuinely safe and therefore he could afford to go out campaigning with likely MPs. Plus it is a lot nicer campaigning in other people's seats than it is in your own,” one senior Tory says.

Former health secretary Victoria Atkins is another potential One Nation candidate, which a December leadership election would favour, allowing her time to build a profile with the membership. 

Former chief secretary to the treasury Laura Trott’s name has even come up in conversation as a lesser-known figure who could provide a fresh face, but she would likely struggle to be viewed as anything other than a Rishi continuity candidate. 

Many believe figures like Atkins and Trott would not stand up well against the threat of Farage and Reform.

Now that Jeremy Hunt has clung on too, his name was shared in Tory circles, although he is expected to rule it out, alongside James Cleverly, who was thought not to have the appetite for permanent leadership, but may be encouraged by moderates.

Suella Braverman, re-elected as MP for Fareham and Waterlooville, recently apologised for her party’s failure on immigration, declaring: “I’m sorry that my party didn’t listen to you.” 

“The Great British people voted for us for over 14 years and we did not keep our promises…We need to learn our lesson,” she added. However, Braverman faces a tough battle to win support from the right of the party, who are likely to favour Badenoch or, potentially, Jenrick. Support within the parliamentary party is close to non-existent, with only a few names like Sir John Hayes and Desmond Swayne thought to be behind her. 

The former home secretary has been clear that under her leadership she would welcome Farage into the party, an issue likely to be hugely divisive throughout the leadership election. As former Tory MP Charles Walker told Times Radio yesterday: “If Suella Braverman leads the Conservative Party, I and many others will not be within that party."SuellaPenny Mordaunt, long touted as a future leader, lost her Portsmouth seat yesterday, ruling her out of the contest. She was hugely popular among young Conservatives who feel neglected by the party.

“I've got five different WhatsApp groups with young Conservatives across the UK – Penny is a top choice,” Ashfield councillor Matthew Bridger told PoliticsHome ahead of the Portsmouth MP’s defeat. One MP thought that if she had survived there would be “no need” for a leadership contest because she would have walked it.

A lot depends on the decisions of the party’s 1922 committee, which has just lost its chair of 14-years in Sir Graham Brady. They will decide on the timescales of future leadership bids, including whether the party membership will have its say.

The name being shared most as the next chairman has been Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, with Iain Duncan-Smith, who defied odds of losing his seat, also being floated. Other names thought to be interested, like Bill Wiggin and Heather Wheeler, lost their seats. “The assumption is that Geoffrey is the chair of the 22. Even if it's only on an interim basis,” one senior Tory MP says.

A looming question is over whether the party membership will be allowed to have its say, with many in Westminster still reeling from Liz Truss’ car-crash premiership. Some Tory MPs seem to think it could be avoided, with one telling PoliticsHome: “We are all wondering whether the final two could come to some sort of agreement to actually get on with it rather than have this protracted membership vote.

“The trouble is it depends who comes second because you could end up having a factional war going on which of course could be fairly destructive.” Conservative MP Jesse Norman suggested in an article for The Telegraph that MPs should make the final decision on leadership, but only after each MP has justified their preferred choice of leader to their local party members ahead of the final vote.

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