So the results are in. The Tory Party took one hell of a beating in the North Shropshire by-election. And this coming on top of the many other scandals and headaches for Johnson’s government. All of this means a leadership challenge against Boris Johnson looks likely in the short to medium term (although I agree with Rafael Behr that this might be a bit longer into the future than some think). Tim Bale’s piece for Open Democracy is also a useful read – as whether, even know, replacing Johnson makes sense is open to some discussion.

But if the Tory Party is to replace Johnson, how is it going to happen? And most importantly, who is going to win? That is what I am going to analyse here.

Importantly I am trying to analyse all of this as a dispassionate observer here – I have no heart in this game. No doubt some people reading this might be passionate supporters of one candidate or another, or be more invested in whether the choice helps the Tories win an election or not. Instead I view this as a process akin to my Brexit Diagrams – a sort of effort to chart the road ahead, and then it is the job for others to do to work out what to do with that chart. I am not yet at the stage of being able to make an actual diagram with probabilities here, although that might eventually follow. For now the simple guide to the procedure will have to be enough.

But let’s make a start on the analysis.

First of all, what is the process? The Institute for Government has a nice explainer – and also an overview of all the Tory leadership contests in the past.

There are two ways for a Tory Party leader to go – to resign (as Theresa May did), or lose a vote of no confidence. A vote of no confidence is triggered if 15% of Tory MPs (currently 54 MPs) write to the Chair of the 1922 Committee. If the leader survives that vote of no confidence, no further vote can happen for 12 months. The 54 MPs threshold can already be reached quite easily, but enough letters will be submitted only when the timing makes sense – the state of the pandemic is calm enough, or Johnson’s gaffes have worsened further. I expect the 54 to be submitted sometime in 2022. Once that does happen, I expect Johnson to lose the vote of no confidence – because those submitting the letters will only do so at a stage when they are reasonably confident they can oust him. Johnson resigning of his own accord I cannot see currently – his inflated sense of his own importance is still too great.

It is the steps that follow that are the most important. Will a potential candidate even stand? If they do, will they make it past the rounds among MPs and into the final 2? And if they make it to the final two, will they win?

There is rather little concrete data to inform us about all of this, but we do at least have the betting odds – see Oddschecker for a complete overview here, and for comparability I will use the Ladbrokes numbers for each candidate below. There is also the Conservative Home poll of party members about the performance of cabinet members – I will use those numbers too.

As I see it there are essentially three types of candidates:

  • In it to win it candidates – those that are entering the race with the genuine aim of becoming leader
  • Representing a strand of opinion candidates – they represent some sort of constituency within the party and their candidature
  • Building their profile candidates – these enter the race knowing that winning would be a long shot, but it will help their careers


The candidates

Rishi Sunak

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 2/1 (favourite)
Conservative Home favourability – +53.3, position 9 of 31

Type of candidate: in it to win it

Will he run? Probably, but there has always been this nagging suspicion with Sunak that his heart is not really in this. But if he does not run now, will be get a second shot at the top job sometime later? Chances are higher he will run if some other candidate(s) do not put their names forward and say they back him from the start. Also unlike Johnson (a toff, they rule anyway) and Truss (a striver who really wants it), Sunak’s somewhat distanced approach perhaps counts against him.

Will he get past the voting rounds among MPs? Likely. He has the opportunity to bridge from the comparatively economically pragmatic wing of the Tory Party across to Eurosceptics (he voted Leave). He positions himself as a sort of Thatcherite, but has been willing to sanction tax rises. Has also sometimes disappeared from public view when the going gets tough. Not inclined to the intellectually empty boosterism of some other candidates.

Will he win a run off among party members? Doubtful. Unless whoever were to oppose him at this stage had some sort of meltdown, I cannot see how he defeats someone who is more on the hardline side of the party than he is. And likewise I cannot see how he would face someone more to the centre in the run-off (Sunak versus, say, Hunt looks impossible). Also is the Tory membership ready to elect someone from an ethnic minority? With all of that in mind he might not even run in the first place.


Liz Truss

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 4/1 (2nd favourite)
Conservative Home favourability – +82.3, position 1 of 31

Type of candidate: in it to win it

Will she run? Yes. The only thing that would prevent it would be some major scandal between now and a leadership election happening.

Will she get past the voting rounds among MPs? Likely. Truss is about the only person who can sort of claim to have made Brexit any sort of success (what’s not to like about flying round the world, signing roll-over trade deals, and posting pictures from the plane steps on Instagram?) and other MPs will see someone so ideologically malleable as ideal as leader – they will think they can bend her ear. And is if that is not enough, are there really two others who are going to fare better among MPs? Also Tory members will be bending MPs’ ears to make sure she makes it to the membership vote.

Will she win a run off among party members? Truss has topped the Conservative Home rankings for members of the cabinet for 12 months. It looks to me that she has just the combination to keep Tory members happy – at a personal level the post-Thatcher image and not as disreputable as Johnson, coupled with empty Brexit boosterism, looks to be just the ticket. And like Cameron in leadership elections past she will happily court the right wing Eurosceptic wing of the party enough to see her home. I cannot see how a candidate more pragmatic than her (Sunak, Hunt) or more to the right (Patel? Harper?) can beat her. She voted Remain, but her complete and total and decisive switch to hard Brexiter seems to have worked with Tory members.


Michael Gove

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 7/1
Conservative Home favourability – +43.1, position 12 of 31

Type of candidate: in it to win it

Will he run? We don’t know. Stabbed Johnson in the back in the 2016 leadership election, ran himself, and ended up behind both Leadsom and May. Ran in 2019 and narrowly did not make it to the ballot of members (Hunt did instead). Could he really try again? Is going through a divorce, and has kept his head down politically recently. But despite all of that is still one of the sharpest minds on the Tory front bench, and has never been short on self confidence. Relationship with party members is also complex – he was pro-Brexit, but has over the years shown more understanding for Brexit’s practical consequences than many other Tories.

Will he get past the voting rounds among MPs? It depends who else runs. Were Sunak and/or Hunt not to run, then Gove might well make it to a second round. But Gove is in a bind – not really as pragmatic as Hunt, not as fresh as Sunak, and not nearly as trusted on the right of the party as a slew of others. When he thinks about it, Gove must know this too.

Will he win a run off among party members? Were the other candidate in the run-off somehow someone more pro-EU than Gove (such as Hunt), then the eurosceptic wing would round behind him, but I cannot see how this could come to pass. Truss or even Mordaunt would beat him in a second round.


Jeremy Hunt

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 12/1
Conservative Home favourability – n/a (is not in cabinet)

Type of candidate: representing a strand of opinion

Will he run? Probably. If the remaining rump of one-nation-ish Tories want a candidate, pushing Hunt forward again is probably their best bet, and Hunt is probably diligent enough to do so – for the sake of the party rather than himself, because he must know his chances of winning are low. He received a third of the membership vote against Johnson in 2019, but there’s nothing to imply he would do any better this time. The personal damage of running would be low – nothing is going to damage his reputation as a lifeless, charisma-free sort of bank manager kind of guy that people only have some respect for because the reputation of pretty much everyone around him is worse.

Will he get past the voting rounds among MPs? It depends who he’s up against. Could squeak into a second round against Gove, but probably not against Sunak. And someone new on the pragmatic wing of the party might also pose a threat.

Will he win a run off among party members? No. He cannot shed his reputation as a pragmatist. Hasn’t been as brazen shedding his previous support for Remain as Truss has. And even if he were not facing Truss in a second round, I can only see him prevailing if the other candidate was really extreme (Mordaunt? Baker?)


Sajid Javid

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 16/1
Conservative Home favourability – +54.3, position 8 of 31

Type of candidate: in it to win it (I suppose)

Will he run? Doubtful. Ran in 2019 and came in behind Johnson, Gove and Hunt in the rounds of voting among MPs. Has found himself in a complex political situation – ousted as Chancellor (only to see Sunak’s star rise), then lockdown-sceptic, to then be brought back into cabinet as Minister of Health and then realise more lockdown measures are needed – that has led to opposition on the Tory backbenches. Also used to be a Remainer, and has somehow never shedded his reputation as a semi-pragmatist. So not running at all is possible, as is only doing so if Sunak, Gove and Hunt were to not do so.

Will he get past the voting rounds among MPs? Probably not. I cannot see what coalition of support he could put together that would be broader than others who might run.

Will he win a run off among party members? No. There is no way he would face Hunt in a second round, and if he faced someone more on the Eurosceptic / anti-lockdown right, then he would lose. He would also lose to Truss.


Tom Tugendhat

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 20/1
Conservative Home favourability – n/a (is not in cabinet)

Type of candidate: representing a strand of opinion / profile building

Will he run? Perhaps, if the circumstances are right. Tugendhat has drawn plaudits from across the political spectrum because he’s more eloquent and intellectually sharp than many others on the Tory benches, and has been careful to build his career slowly. When he has been mentioned as a possible leader before, he has batted away those ideas, but this might be his time. It would especially make sense were Jeremy Hunt not to run, and let the vaguely pragmatists back Tugendhat. He might have little to lose by trying, would undoubtedly generate a media storm, but it all might go the way of Rory Stewart’s 2019 leadership bid.

Will he get past the voting rounds among MPs? It depends who else runs. If Hunt runs it might make it hard for him, and he’d struggle to get into the final two if Sunak and Truss both run.

Will he win a run off among party members? No. Or not unless there is some major change of behaviour among Tory members, or some major implosion from whatever candidate he were up against. The very reason Tudgendhat commands some respect outside the Tory ranks is exactly the reason he will struggle here – he is not as willing as some other candidates to say anything just to get elected.


Priti Patel

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 25/1
Conservative Home favourability – +0.2, position 29 of 31

Type of candidate: in it to win it (I suppose)

Will she run? I have no idea. I simply do not get Priti Patel, she’s a sort of freelancing neo-populist and lightning rod for Johnson. She’s neither like Truss courting the party membership, nor is she rooted in some strand of opinion / faction like Hunt or Baker or Harper. She takes a ridiculously hard line on migration issues, but even then seems somewhat estranged from both MPs and the wider party. She also has not been able to avoid the whiff of corruption throughout her parliamentary career. All I can conclude is that her inclusion in lists of possible leaders is that she has plenty of self confidence, and the media does not know who else to list. She will not win.

Will she get past the voting rounds among MPs? Patel’s position was already fragile when the bullying scandal almost downed her ministerial career, and I would bet other MPs have been on the receiving end of her absence of charm too. Whatever her politics I cannot see any way for her to get into the final 2.

Will she win a run off among party members? I suppose she could beat Hunt, but I can see no way that would come to pass. So no.


Mark Harper

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 25/1
Conservative Home favourability – n/a (is not in cabinet)

Type of candidate: representing a strand of opinion

Will he run? Perhaps, and if he does not, someone very similar to him will do so. Harper ran in 2019 and was eliminated early with just 3% of MPs backing him. But he has emerged since then as the chair of the so called COVID Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs. Any leadership bid should be seen in this light – it is to shape the debate in the party, not to actually win.

Will he get past the voting rounds among MPs? He might do a little better than last time, but he will not get into the final two. His positions are too marginal, and his personal standing too low.

Will he win a run off among party members? No, because he will not get there. It is who he and MPs close to his strand of opinion will back that is significant.


Penny Mordaunt

Bio on Wikipedia
Ladbrokes odds – 28/1
Conservative Home favourability – n/a (is not in cabinet)

Type of candidate:  profile building

Will she run? Possibly. She’s just been on a speaking tour in the USA, and was honing her cringe-worthy boosterism. The only female MP who’s a navy reservist, and the first female defence minister ever in the UK. And not tainted by association with Johnson’s government as she is currently not in cabinet. She’s the kind of libertarians and eurosceptics’ Tugendhat – she voted Leave.

Will she get past the voting rounds among MPs? It depends who she is facing. Truss will be going for the same sort of support, and is currently better known. Were Truss to stumble it might just work. She is also socially quite liberal, and that might not work well with old male backbenchers.

Will she win a run off among party members? Again here her success would depend on others failing. She could well beat a pragmatist like Hunt or Tugendhat, but would probably struggle against someone better known who at least had some comparable Eurosceptic credentials – like Sunak.


Other candidates

Dominic Raab is so tainted by the pull out from Afghanistan, and is so wooden in the media, that I think he cannot be seriously considered. Kemi Badenoch, Kwasi Kwarteng and Nadim Zahawi do not have bases broad enough in the party, and the latter two are too much Johnson henchmen. Ben Wallace is too boring for today’s mediatised politics, and Oliver Dowden and Steve Barclay are no better and are even less able than Wallace. Nadine Dorries and Steve Baker are too loopy, even by Tory standards (Baker would, I think, back Harper – who is a bit more presentable). The Jacob Rees-Mogg act has worn thin, so he will not win (and probably will not run).



Barring some major mis-step, it looks like Truss is the clear front runner. She has excellent chances of making it to the second round, and excellent chances of beating whoever it would be that she might encounter there.


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