Who will replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader? Four in ten Tory MPs hanker for his exit but there is no clear timetable for his departure. When Margaret Thatcher’s leadership came under threat in 1990, there were clear camps and candidates ready to stand – candidates that commanded the broad confidence of the party. But now? Boris Johnson’s opponents are determined. As the Conservatives face probable defeat in the upcoming Wakefield and Tiverton by-elections, they will likely be increasingly candid about their views with colleagues and the media. At present, however, the rebels are hopelessly, hopelessly headless.
The 148 Tory MPs who officially want Johnson gone lack a unifying identity. Not all, as some might assume, are Remainers. Some are from the 2019 intake and pro-Brexit – but, again, not all.
Johnson’s detractors transcend Leave-Remain divides as well as traditional Tory factions. The principles the Prime Minister has been seen to betray and the damage he has done to the Conservative brand concerns MPs of all stripes, and the perception that he would struggle to win the next general election, while hotly debated in Tory circles, colours the views of those in safe seats and marginals.
This makes any attempt at identifying a clear successor to Johnson an impossible task. Some look to Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary and supposed anti-Johnson candidate. But just 10 per cent of Conservative Party members, in a poll by YouGov, would favour him as Johnson’s successor should a vacancy arise.
When you collate the views of Tory party members, you find no one stands out. The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, tops the poll but it would be a woeful devaluation of the term “tops the poll” to leave it at that. Wallace is the preferred successor of only 12 per cent of the party membership and only one percentage point ahead of the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who’s on 11 per cent.
Here, the problem is laid bare. Never mind the Conservative parliamentary party, Tory members don’t know who they want. There is no single figure they are prepared to rally around.
But this hasn’t always been the case. Rishi Sunak, the golden boy of the Covid crisis, was seen as the natural successor by the party membership last year. He appealed to the David Cameron camp as well as those sections of the Johnson battalion focused on nothing but winning the next election.
But Sunak has since crashed and burned. Perceived to have handled the cost-of-living crisis poorly, his reputation is in tatters and, despite some screeching U-turns on a windfall tax, his numbers have yet to rally. Here’s a man who, in the eyes of members, is no longer seen as the natural successor to Johnson. And the fall of Sunak has seemingly heralded the survival of Johnson.
Boris Johnson won't be replaced anytime soon. Why? Because we have no clue who would replace him. And nor do his detractors.