With a £10,000 fine swinging like a Sword of Damocles over the Prime Minister’s job security, Conservatives as high as leader Ian Duncan Smith are questioning Johnson’s ability to stay in Downing Street. If Cressida Dick’s successor as Commissioner decides that any of the twelve incidents being investigated can bring Boris down, there will be a long line of ministers vying to fill his shoes. But do any in the Cabinet look like PMs in waiting? Or should Brits be distressed by a deficit in eligible leaders?
A Tory leadership race would be less about who has the most forthright vision for salvaging prosperity from a post-COVID cost of living crisis, and more about whose path has the least amount of hurdles their rivals can place in their way.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is often floated as a frontrunner. Party members polled put his prospects at a close second to Foreign Secretary and Party favourite Liz Truss. Despite Sunak’s greater popularity among the wider public, his position is precariously predicated on the coming bursting of the budget bubble.
Ahead of elections in May, energy prices are due to increase £693 per household – with at least 8 per cent attributable to renewable subsidies levies. Sunak’s proposed £200 rebate loan will barely make a dent, and homeowners will be unhappy when this is repaid piecemeal over the next five years. Like Lord Agnew, voters may be less forgiving when the costs of quantitative easing hit their pocketbooks.
Meanwhile, Party Conference events have been a Queenmaker for Truss, who is poised to be the Party’s third female leader. With the first state-level deal signed with Australia this month, Truss’ trade empire shows no signs of slowing. Her vilification by Chinese State Media make her an ideal prospect for hawkish policy against the Communist Party; particularly as Peers formally recognise the state-funded Wuhan Lab as the origin of the pandemic. Culture warriors like myself have been appeased, too, with Truss eviscerating the “tools of the left” — their obsession with equalising outcomes across identity markers — and pledging instead to make policies on correcting geographical disparities in economic opportunity.
Inversely, one to be counted on to toss his hat in the ring is veteran of the Party apparatus, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove. Gove claims to be “Totally behind the PM,” on accusations of whips threatening to withdraw funding from rebels. Gove’s comment recalls a phrase from Yes Minister: that, to stab someone in the back, you must get behind them first. Given Gove’s track record of derailing Boris’ path to PM, it would surprise nobody if that support turned to a shove beneath the Brexit Bus.
But Gove’s upward momentum is a head-scratcher to those living under his policies. Gove was part of a pro-lockdown trio during his time as Cabinet Office Minister. He implemented an unpopular set of exam reforms during his stint as Education Secretary. The Levelling Up whitepaper may well be the most forthright policy proposal for a post-COVID recovery plan produced by Cabinet. It hopes to close the education outcomes and £434 travel spending disparity between the north and south. But recommendations from the likes of the CBI must be listened to, concerning tax cuts and innovative investment incentives to drive job creation in the north.
Alternatively, if there is substance to Nusrat Ghani’s accusation that she was sacked for her “Muslimness,” then Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi’s background could be a boon to proving the Tory Party’s tolerance in a leadership bid.
The Rt Hon Member for Stratford-on-Avon could also campaign on reopening schools — but that path is fraught with pitfalls. A year of impaired or absent at-home learning means pupils are starting secondary school with a reading age of six. Much may be blamed on Gavin Williamson’s time in office, though his pending knighthood may whitewash his accountability in the history books. Zahawi’s prior role as Vaccines Minister could also become a liability: if the coming COVID inquiry raises questions about the cost-effectiveness of dose procurement (including 800,000 that went to waste).
The same is to be said of Sajid Javid. From U-turns on statistics to the sacking of 77,000 NHS workers via vaccine mandates, the Health Secretary has neither reduced waiting lists or wastage within the NHS as pledged. Any scrutiny of pandemic policy will admonish Javid for his unfulfilled promise to act unlike his predecessor, and force through new restrictions.
Languishing in ministerial purgatory are the Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Raab’s deputising during the reshuffle was seen to be a demotion, following criticism of his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Patel has fared no better, breaking promises to stop the influx of migrants crossing the Channel. Both stand with more to lose than gain, pending a leadership contest.
Beyond the knife-sharpening on the front benches, other MPs are signalling their possession of a new theoretical direction to right the present Party’s perceived philosophical rudderless-ness. Steve Baker has launched Conservative Way Forward: a treatise on limited libertarian governance, “freedom under law”, and “personal responsibility.” Mark Harper’s chairmanship of the COVID recovery group has regained him good graces among those objecting to restrictions. Jeremy Hunt gave an interview, signalling an inclination to make a leadership bid. Even Penny Mordaunt has been labelled a “dark horse” contender.
Murmurs among consultancy firms form a chorus: winners will be picked soon. The question remains, from within the Cabinet, or without?