The last rites have not yet been spoken and already the heirs are gathered around the deathbed and stripping the rings off Theresa May’s fingers. The collective assumption of most Conservative MPs, which may yet be wrong, is that the Conservative role of party leader is shortly to fall vacant. Who might her replacement be?
For all the difficulties that the role has, there is no shortage of volunteers. Many Conservative MPs look in the mirror, straighten themselves up, comb their hair and practise solemn expressions suitable for their eventual anointment.
Some have not bothered for the vacancy to arise before launching campaigns. Some have in practice been campaigning ever since Theresa May was elevated to the position. Some are testing the water now, making wide-ranging speeches and appearing in the Sunday magazines in posed photos with spouses and spice racks. And some are waiting for the call to serve, having first taken the precaution of letting it be known through unattributable briefings that the nation need not feel obliged to overlook them.
Let’s look at the packed field. The price given is in each case the last traded price on the Betfair next Conservative leader market.
Esther McVey – the most unreconciled of the prominent Leavers. Spiky, a longterm hate figure for the left for reasons that have nothing to do with Brexit. Unlikely to be a healer. Could be a threat to the complacent male big beast Leavers in any campaign. (59/1)
Dominic Raab – first out of the blocks to declare his candidacy, endorsed by David Davis and Maria Miller. A Leaver who caved into the government on the third meaningful vote. Lacks any notable achievements or personality or any distinctive policy positions. Second favourite perhaps because of this. (7/1)
Rory Stewart – recently given an overdue (in his view) promotion to Cabinet and has immediately declared his candidacy. Wants to move on from Brexit. Almost certainly doomed as a consequence. (16/1)
Highly probable to stand
Michael Gove – the Leaver who has been most loyal to Theresa May (after his knifing of Boris Johnson last time around, perhaps he had to be). Obviously bright and curious, lacks any kind of public warmth or charm. Voter-repellent and does not look the part but possibly the only person acceptable to both wings of the Conservative party. When asked about standing: “No it’s not a no.” The loss of his campaign manager Nick Boles may prove important. Third favourite. (10/1)
Jeremy Hunt – member of the Cabinet since 2010, he has been the minister most effective at dousing fires in that time. A former Remainer who is now open to no deal Brexit. Appears unprincipled, which may be an advantage. Fourth favourite. (11/1)
Sajid Javid – Another former Remainer Cabinet minister who has sought to make his peace with Leavers. A similar candidate to Jeremy Hunt but without either the baggage or the track record. Drifting in the betting but to be watched closely: has potential. (23/1)
Boris Johnson – like the most-photographed barn in America, his longstanding claim to the leadership derives in large part from his longstanding claim to the leadership. Floundered hopelessly as Foreign Secretary and has offered no clear vision of Brexit since. Well-known but not well-liked either within Parliament or outside. Will definitely stand when the moment arises. Favourite. (7/2)
Matthew Hancock – another former Remainer who is looking to move the conversation on from Brexit. He would be a good choice on that basis. Has the air of a trendy vicar. Probably doomed. (16/1)
Liz Truss –an engaging speaker who is a gift to the parodists. Last seen in publicity shots posing like a discarded member of the Spice Girls reflecting on her career, she at least has a personality. The Tories could do a lot worse. They probably will and, as Liz Truss herself would say, That Is A Dis Grace. (69/1)
George Freeman – announced last year that if called upon he would stand. He is not obviously being called upon. (999/1)
Weighing their options
Steve Baker – apparently under the belief that there are not enough Leavers in the field. The equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy. Should be a no-hoper. Probably is a no-hoper.
John Baron – in the habit at the time of leadership contests of weighing his options. Supposedly very clever but apparently unable to appreciate that being unknown is an automatic disqualifier. (999/1)
Sir Graham Brady – head of the 1922 committee and a committed Leaver, well known by backbenchers and enthusiastic Conservatives, unknown by anyone else. Reportedly considering whether to stand, though why exactly is unclear. (84/1)
James Cleverly – youngish MP who has occasionally written something amusing on social media. No other obvious qualifications. (45/1)
Justine Greening – former Cabinet minister, Remain-supporting and in favour of a fresh referendum. Planning to run if no other centrist runs. Given the current Conservative party, that would be quixotic. Surely on defection watch. (499/1)
Mark Harper – former Chief Whip who voted Remain but initially opposed Theresa May’s deal. Couldn’t be picked out of an identity parade by most voters but apparently gathering support among MPs. Possibly a trading bet. (179/1)
Andrea Leadsom – one of a very select group of politicians whose reputation has been enhanced in this government. If she runs she should be a very serious candidate indeed. (27/1)
Johnny Mercer – young and good-looking, whose most notable achievement is starring in a shampoo advert. Currently exiling himself from the Conservative whip over long after-the-fact prosecutions of soldiers in the apparent belief that gives him a USP in the upcoming leadership election. (119/1)
Penny Mordaunt – newly in Cabinet, noted for starring in a TV diving competition and for directly lying in the referendum campaign about whether Britain had a veto over Turkey becoming a member of the EU. Personable and can’t be ruled out if she gets the backing to run. (19/1)
Nicky Morgan – former Cabinet minister who famously fell out with Theresa May over a pair of trousers. She has in return shown Theresa May far more loyalty than she deserved. A firm Remainer, she has sought to broker a compromise over Brexit, an aim as laudable as her solution was impracticable. A plausible unity candidate but the Conservative party does not look to be looking for a unity candidate just now. (469/1)
Priti Patel – steely and fluent former Cabinet minister, a vehement Leaver, most famous for being in favour of capital punishment and being sacked for devising her own foreign policy then lying about that. A possibility in the same vein as Esther McVey if she chooses to run. (24/1)
Amber Rudd – an able and fluent minister with a personality but a formerly strong Remain supporter who has consistently argued for a softer Brexit, and therefore regarded with deep suspicion by most Leave supporters. As such holed beneath the waterline. Far more able than almost any conceivable winner. (47/1)
Tom Tugendhat – the anonymous Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee who apparently believes that destiny calls. He obviously has better hearing than the rest of us. (84/1)
Steve Barclay – current Brexit Secretary. Has somehow managed to avoid any attention or interest. (979/1)
Geoffrey Cox – capable and an engaging speaker, has demonstrated principles under pressure. Lacks a base but should be watched. (159/1)
Philip Hammond – it is extraordinary that the serving Chancellor of the Exchequer is completely out of contention, but he is. Such is the mania sweeping the Conservative party about Brexit. (109/1)
David Lidington – effectively Deputy Prime Minister at present. Like Philip Hammond, seen as far too pro-Remain to stand a chance with the rank and file. (189/1)
David Davis – supporting Dominic Raab despite apparently being better qualified for the job. Who doesn’t dare doesn’t win. (109/1)
David Gauke – has been making wide-ranging speeches but “when it comes to any future leadership election, my position is to resist the clamour to stand. I remain confident that my resistance will be greater than the clamour.” (679/1)
Nick Gibb – though he has found time to make a wide-ranging speech on the crisis of capitalism in which he set out his credo as a socially liberal Conservative. (999/1)
Jacob Rees-Mogg – to be fair, Mr R-M has long stated he was not looking to be next leader, though the betting markets long disbelieved him and he was the longtime favourite. Currently Betfair makes him more likely to be next Prime Minister than next Conservative leader. The course of events that would lead to that outcome takes some imagining. (69/1)
It’s a mess. No candidate stands out, which is why so many are thinking of going for it. As a general rule the able candidates are ruled out by their views on Brexit while the candidates with appropriate views on Brexit are ruled out by their ability.
My working assumption is that there are enough sane Conservative MPs to send at least one competent and experienced candidate to the last two. I therefore expect at least one of Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid to be in the last two, and possibly two. More likely, and especially if Brexit has not taken place by the time of the contest, the other position will be held by an unchallengeable Leaver.
If you’re looking for a possibility who is favourably priced, look at some of the women in that group. Esther McVey, Priti Patel, Penny Mordaunt and even Nicky Morgan might be worth thinking about. But if she goes for it, Andrea Leadsom might be very hard to stop. If she were to win, the Conservatives might not immediately erupt into civil war. Right now, that’s about as good as they can hope for.