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Who Will Be The Next Leader Of The Tory Party?

Cabinet ministers Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt (Alamy)

12 min read

Kemi Badenoch, James Cleverly and Penny Mordaunt are just some of the names in the mix to be the next leader of the Conservative party if the Tories lose the general election in 2024 and Rishi Sunak is forced to resign.

If Labour boots the Tories out of Downing Street at the next election, which opinion polls consistently suggest is likely, the Conservative Party will find itself in opposition for the first time in nearly 15 years.

The next general election must be called by December 2024, meaning legally it could be held in January 2025, although this is considered to be an unpalatable option for all parties, as well as the public. Prime Minister Sunak recently told journalists that he expected the election to be held some time next year.

In the event of a defeat, it is customary that a party leader resigns rathern than become leader of the opposition. The next Conservative leader would inherit the mighty task of deciding the direction of the defeated party, as well as rebuilding its resources and morale, while at the same time try to take the fight to Labour prime minister Keir Starmer. 

The instability of the last few years has meant that many leading Tories have already been blatant about their leadership ambitions, while unexpected candidates often emerge when a competition gets underway. 

Here is who is tipped for a bid to replace Sunak if he steps down after the next general election.

Kemi BadenochKemi Badenoch (Alamy)

As one of the Conservative government's loudest and most forthright voices on culture issues, Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is in a strong position to appeal to the right-wing of the Tory party. 

She entered the contest to replace Boris Johnson last summer and despite having never held a position more senior than local government minister, went on to defy expectations and made it to the fourth round of voting. She was endorsed by senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove.

While Badenoch campaigned to leave the European Union in 2016, she may be have to repair a few bridges with the party's most ardent Brexiteers if she is to secure their support in the next leadership contest. Earlier this year, she infuriated a number of them by watering down plans to scrap all EU laws and in heated exchange with the European Research Group's David Jones MP, accused him of leaking their private conversations to the press.

It's not just on the Tory right where Badenoch enjoys support, though. One senior Conservative figure, who is by no means in the same wing of the party as Badenoch, said she was "very thoughtful" and more intellectual than your average MP. 

One criticism of Badenoch among some Tory MPs is that her tone is sometimes rude and patronising, which is something she may have to work on ahead of a leadership bid.

James CleverlyJames Cleverly (Alamy)

Compared with other Tory figures in this list, Home Secretary James Cleverly has more recently emerged as a leading candidate to be the next Conservative party leader.

During his stint as foreign secretary, he developed a reputation for being one of the government's strongest communicators, which is one of the reasons why he was moved to a tricky, domestic brief in the form of home affairs in the run-up to the general election.

Cleverly is also seen as someone who could bring the Tory party together after the devastation of a general election defeat and subsequent blame game. That he has served in the Cabinets of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak demonstrates he is loyal and non-tribal, which his supporters say isn't the case for many Tory MPs in recent years.

However, while a popular figure there are questions over what he actually stands for — among MPs as well as party donors. "He's a very decent guy and very well-liked in the party. But he doesn't believe in anything," one Conservative backbencher said. 

His stock with the right of the party has taken a bit of a hit since moving to the Home Office, where he almost immediately became the new target for the wrath of MPs who want the government to do much more to reduce migration. One former Cabinet minister reckoned that Cleverly's star has been "fading" since swapping flights abroad for tackling small boats.

Penny MordauntPenny Mordaunt (Alamy)

Will it be third time lucky for Penny Mordaunt?

Mordaunt, currently the House of Commons leader, ran twice to be Tory leader last year but on both occasions didn't have enough support from Conservative MPs to go all the way. This was despite being seen as a strong media performer with the potential to appeal to both wings of the parliamentary party.

This came as a relief to a number of Labour figures who at the time privately believed that Mordaunt would prove popular with the public and provide them with the biggest headache of all the candidates in the running.

While other senior MPs have seen their popularity with Conservative party members rise and fall (Cleverly's rating in the ConservativeHome Cabinet league table fell from 72 points to 10.6 after moving to the Home Office), Mordaunt has remained one of the most popular ministers with card-carrying Tories, suggesting she would be in a strong position to claim the crown in the event of making it to the final two at the third time of asking.

Her weekly despatch box attacks on the Scottish National Party have made for a regular serving of catnip for Tory members, while her success in carrying a large sword at the coronation of King Charles III in May earned her further plaudits. 

There are a number of Conservative MPs, however, who remain unconvinced that Mordaunt has the substance to match the style, and are hesitant to fully throw their weight behind her over what they describe as a lack of proper policy agenda. This was the criticism of her 2022 leadership bids and could be an obstacle if she throws her hat in the ring again — though there is an argument that policy detail is less important when you're elected as the new leader of the opposition, rather than the new prime minister.

Suella Braverman

Suella Braverman (Alamy)

At the The Daily Express' Tory conference reception in October, there was a feeling among many attendees that they were being addressed by the next leader of the Conservative party when Suella Braverman spoke. A gaggle of excitable party members chanted "Braverman! Braverman!".

The former home secretary is now a free-speaking backbench MP with several axes to grind. She is widely seen as the unofficial leader of the right-wing of the parliamentary Tory party after being sacked by Sunak in November over an unsanctioned opinion piece about pro-Palestine protests and her explosive claim that homelessness is a lifestyle choice. 

But the erstwhile home secretary's relationship with Sunak was always a tense and uneasy one, with Braverman publicly pushing for the government to adopt more hardline policies and causing great annoyance in No 10 and for Conservative MPs elsewhere in the party.

There is little doubt that Braverman would command the support of a significant number of MPs on the right of the party in a leadership contest, while her hardline views on issues like immigration would likely go down well with the Conservative party membership. 

But while there are Conservative MPs who adore Braverman and her politics, there are others, especially those in the One Nation wing of self-described Tory moderates, who loathe her flavour of Conservatism and warn that there would be an organised "stop Suella" campaign within the parliamentary party to prevent her from making it to the final two in a leadership contest. 

"I'll come in and help even if I am no longer an MP," said one former Cabinet minister.

Priti Patel

Priti Patel (Alamy)

According to one former secretary of state, the divisiveness of Braverman is why the "smart money" should be on another pro-Brexit, former home secretary: Priti Patel.

The Conservative MP for Witham has had a fairly quiet year having quit Cabinet in 2022 following the resignation of Johnson. But as a senior Tory with well-known socially conservative politics and close alignment with tax-cutters like Liz Truss, she is well-placed to make a pitch to the right of the party should she decide to throw her hat in the ring.

Her surprising claim in October that the UK shouldn't leave the European Convention of Human Rights to tackle small boats set her apart from Braverman and could make her a more palatable option for moderate Tories if they are faced with a menu of right-wingers.

Tom Tugendhat

Tom Tugendhat (Alamy)

What of the One Nation crowd?

The parliamentary group, led by former secretary of state Damian Green, has become rejuvenated in the last few months, gaining members and taking a significantly more muscular approach to expressing its view on divisive Tory party issues like the ECHR and net zero.

This, as PoliticsHome reported this summer, was partly because it wanted to ensure it play a key role in determining the next leader of their party, and not be reduced to spectators.

Tom Tugendhat, the current security minister and Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling, has long been seen as the group's best hope of getting one their own into the top job.

A number of MPs in the Northern Research Group continue to be fans of the former army officer after he was the only Tory leadership candidate to speak at their 2022 conference in Doncaster, earning him an endorsement from the group's then chair Jake Berry MP.

But there is a feeling among some One Nation MPs that as much as they like Tugendhat, his time may have been and gone.

Gillian Keegan

Gillian Keegan (Alamy)

... which brings us to Gillian Keegan.

The Merseyside-born education secretary is a very popular choice for a number of MPs in the One Nation caucus. As someone who was helped to become a Conservative MP by former Cabinet minister Justine Greening, and who endorsed Rory Stewart in the 2019 leadership contest, she is firmly cut from the David Cameron-loving, Tory moderate cloth.

Keegan is also admired for her "relatability", and has won praise from Conservative MPs for "saying it how it is".

But this disposition did land her in hot water in September when she was caught on camera appearing to complain that she hadn't received more credit for her response to the concrete crisis in schools. "Does anyone ever say: ‘You know what, you’ve done a fucking good job, because everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing’?" she asked.

There is also the bigger question facing any One Nation leadership hopeful like Tugendhat or Keegan in whether they stand any realistic chance of being backed by a Tory party membership that is significantly further to the right than they are.

Claire Coutinho

Claire Coutinho (Alamy)

There were raised eyebrows aplenty when Sunak appointed Claire Coutinho his new secretary of state for energy security and net zero in August. Not only was her leap from junior education minister to the Cabinet table a big one (some Conservative MPs complained that it was too big), but she had been given a top job having only been a Tory MP for four years.

Her rapid ascension may not be done there, either. The Prime Minister is believed to be considering making her the first female chancellor before the next general election, in what would represent an extraordinary rise for the former special adviser. It would also deprive Labour's Rachel Reeves of the accolade if her party is subsequently elected. 

Coutinho is one of Sunak's closest allies and it is doubtful whether there will be a huge appetite for one of his crew to take over from him following a general election defeat.

But what she lacks in experience she makes up for in intelligence, her admirers believe. 

Plus, Cameron was only an MP for four years before becoming leader of the opposition.

A wildcard

Miriam Cates (Alamy)

There is a school of thought that if the Conservative party suffers a heavy defeat at the next general election, there could well be a push to pick someone from the next generation, less tainted by the reputation of the last few years of Tory government, to take the reins. 

On the right, Miriam Cates may be that person. The MP Penistone and Stocksbridge is seen as a rising star of the socially-conservative right of the Conservative party, emerging as a leading member of the New Conservatives group in 2023. 

However, she is currently the subject of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards investigation. The alleged offence is unknown, but it has caused "significant damage to the reputation of the House as a whole, or of its members generally".

On the moderate wing of the party, Andrew Bowie MP is one to keep an eye on.

One former secretary of state told PoliticsHome they would be willing to run his campaign for him if the "tremendous" MP for West Aberdeenshire decided to launch a bid. 

Elsewhere, former Cabinet minister Brandon Lewis has previously considered running for the leadership and may be tempted to stick his name on the ballot next time.

Since leaving government, where he held several Cabinet positions, he has been an active campaigner for house building and tax cuts, which could possibly foreshadow a pitch to the Trussite wing of the party. He has close ties with the Adam Smith Institute libertarian think tank.

...Rishi Sunak

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

Prime ministers who lose elections are expected to resign and let someone else have a go.

But if Sunak manages to avoid a disastrous result at the next election, perhaps by reducing Starmer's victory to a small majority or a hung parliament, you can expect some Conservative MPs to argue that he should be allowed to stay on as leader of the opposition.

With Silicon Valley close to his heart, it is not clear whether he would be up for it, however.

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