(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak heads to the Conservative Party’s conference this weekend with one aim: convincing Britain he can win the UK’s next general election. Many of his own lawmakers are already preparing for a scenario in which he doesn’t.
The prime minister has spent recent weeks trying to shore up his base. He’s rowed back on green measures in the name of reducing costs for ordinary Britons and mulled a reassessment of the HS2 high-speed rail link, the UK’s flagship infrastructure project.
But national polls suggest he won’t be Britain’s leader after an election that must be called by January 2025. The Labour Party has enjoyed a double-digit polling lead for more than a year. After a couple of recent polls appeared to show Sunak clawing back ground, YouGov this week gave Labour a 21-point advantage.
While Sunak, 43, appears to have suppressed for now the threat of an internal challenge, many Tories are working behind the scenes for a leadership run if the election goes badly, according to interviews with more than two dozen Conservative lawmakers, advisers and donors. There are at least 13 would-be contenders to watch out for, said the people, who spoke to Bloomberg on condition of anonymity.
One Member of Parliament said the subplot of Tory conference — told in unsubtle speeches, fringe events and drinks at hotel bars — was the battle for the future of the party. Another told Bloomberg that Sunak was already a lame duck.
Sunak’s backers say his team is focused on making a success of his premiership and not getting distracted by events beyond their control. Allies of all the possible leadership hopefuls said they were working to support the prime minister and pushing for a Tory election win. Some Tories think Sunak could still pull off victory or stay on if Labour fail to secure an outright majority.
“Who replaces Rishi in the event of a defeat is going to depend in no small part on just how bad that defeat turns out to be,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, who has researched how the party’s post-election make-up will determine its leader.
Here’s who could run:
Sunak’s business secretary raised eyebrows among colleagues by holding a party in her office in the summer to celebrate the “benefits of Brexit,” serving English sparkling wine. Badenoch, 43, is currently the most popular Cabinet minister in a closely watched monthly survey of Tory members by the website ConservativeHome. She is also the bookmakers’ favorite, although she fell out with some pro-Brexit MPs earlier this year when she doused a so-called bonfire of legislation retained from European Union membership.
For many Tories, giving Truss, 48, another chance is unthinkable, since her 49 days in office last year caused a market rout and cratered the Conservatives’ reputation. Yet she is determined to influence party politics and could consider standing for leader in opposition, three people close to her said. She inspires loyalty from a group of “pro-growth” MPs, and will speak at a sidelines conference event on Monday. Truss has said publicly she has no desire to be premier again.
The home secretary has long been seen as positioning herself as the figure who would take a harder line on immigration and culture issues, as shown by her speech in the US this week. Some in government think Braverman, 43, might resign if Sunak declines to support leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. Centrist Tories say they’ll do all they can to prevent her from making the leadership runoff. Some on the right argue she has relatively few MP supporters, and that serving Sunak has undermined her pitch.
The foreign secretary is being urged to stand by some Conservatives who see him as a unity candidate. A Brexiteer, ally of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and early Truss backer, his appeal also extends to Tory moderates. Some have questioned whether Cleverly, 54, sees his long-term future in politics, though he’s described reports he could quit as “nonsense.”
Tory centrists are hopeful their wing can coalesce around one candidate, with Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat frequently mentioned. While Mordaunt, 50, is popular with the party grassroots, she came up short in two leadership runs last year. Her consolation prize was becoming leader of the House of Commons and getting a starring role at King Charles III’s coronation, wielding a ceremonial sword. Labour are now targeting her district. Tugendhat, the 50-year-old security minister, is an alternative candidate, though others suggest he and Mordaunt should endorse Cleverly to prevent a right-wing takeover.
If the Tories lose the election badly, some in the party think they should back a more experienced leader, perhaps as a caretaker until a younger face is ready. Grant Shapps, 55 — now in his fifth cabinet role — has been boosted by his appointment as defense secretary, though his seat is also under threat. Michael Gove, 56, another cabinet veteran, is an ally of Badenoch, but never far from political intrigue and is regarded as one of the party’s best thinkers.
Former Home Secretary Priti Patel, 51, is a rival of Braverman’s and some on the right think she could stand and split the right-wing vote. Former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, 54, is also tipped by some MPs who suspect he wants to be shadow chancellor under a right-wing leader. Both are allies of Johnson, who is out of politics now, but hasn’t ruled out a return. Longer shots include Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, 55, who some in No. 10 accused of having designs on Sunak’s job before coming under fire over crumbling concrete in schools. Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho, 38, is seen as a possible “continuity Sunak” candidate, though she is new to front-line politics. Some think pro-Brexit House of Lords peer David Frost, 58, might run for a Commons seat ahead of a leadership bid.
–With assistance from Ellen Milligan.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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