Evaluating The Remaining Conservative Leadership Candidates

Felix Hawes

On the 7th of July Boris Johnson resigned. Conservative MPs are currently selecting their next leader. There were eleven, now there are three. They will be whittled down to two by MPs and be put to the membership. Felix Hawes talks us through what Conservative MPs and members may be thinking as they choose a new leader.

The MPs’ current favourite is Rishi Sunak, who was Boris Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer until he resigned in the week that brought down the former ‘Teflon’ Prime Minister.

In the Sunday ITV debate, Sunak labelled Truss’ plans socialist and said that Mordaunt’s borrowing plans were more extreme than Corbyn’s. Sunak meanwhile claims that he will run the country like Thatcher. Truss, also has attempted to replicate Thatcher in look and style.

Is it possible that [the Conservative Party’s] coalition of voters […] in 2019 is at risk of breaking down?

Thatcher ceased to be the leader of the Conservative Party in 1990, yet her political vision still dominates. However a replication of her ‘small state’ approach is unlikely to appeal to the new working-class voter base of the Conservative Party, commonly referred to as the ‘Red Wall’. On the other hand the commitment of all candidates to send migrants, including asylum seekers, to Rwanda is unlikely to appeal to the more socially liberal Conservative suburban seats, now referred to as the ‘Blue Wall’.

Is it possible that the coalition of voters that bought the Conservatives their largest majority in 32 years in 2019 is at risk of breaking down?

If the Conservatives retain their […] strategy, they can gain further seats in the Red Wall

It seems likely, yet there is still potential that the Conservatives could win a fifth term, which would be historic for any party. There are many similarities with the sleaze scandals that faced John Major the last time the Conservatives were in their fourth term. The Conservatives are also polling badly. But they are not facing Blair. Starmer’s approval ratings hover at just under a third of the electorate. At a comparable time, Blair was approved of by two-thirds of the electorate.

If the Conservatives retain their socially conservative but economically interventionalist strategy, they can gain further seats in the Red Wall, in what Professor Goodwin labels ‘Red Wall 2.0, which contains roughly the same number of seats as what they may lose in the Blue Wall.

Rishi Sunak is potentially the best at the ‘levelling up’

Can any of the remaining candidates achieve this? Rishi Sunak is potentially the best at the ‘levelling up’ as he is the only candidate standing on a ticket of high taxes and investment. But with his wife’s non-dom status, his green card and his phenomenal wealth he may struggle to appeal to working-class voters. Ipsos Mori’s poll showed that 36% of the population thought being much wealthier was a sign someone would not make a good Prime Minister.

However, being wealthy did not stop Boris Johnson appealing to working-class voters, who voted Conservative over Labour by 15% in 2019.

Perhaps this is the ‘little magic’ Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was referring to when she said on LBC that she was glad that Johnson had resigned as he was able to win over voters that any of the candidates vying to replace him may not be able to reach. Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell also said in an interview with ‘The House’ that “Boris […] was able to reach parts of the country that other Conservatives haven’t and won’t be able to reach.”

The battle for who goes against Sunak is important because they are likely to win the leadership election

However, Johnson could not carry on. Although Corbyn had resignations and lost a confidence motion from his MPs and endured a cabinet revolt but still carried on, the same can not be done by the party in government. Johnson’s personal approval rating was also very low and the stories following him showed no signs of ending, least of all that he is being investigated for potentially having misled parliament over ‘partygate’. Johnson has said he has “absolutely nothing, frankly, to hide.”

The battle for who goes against Sunak is important because they are likely to win the leadership election, as Sunak is the least popular remaining candidate amongst party members – the deciders of the final stage of the contest.

If Truss does win, it will continue the trend that the bookies’ favourite to win the Conservative leadership election at the start of the campaign does not go on to win. Only three in the last eleven leadership elections has the favourite gone on to win.

In their backing for Truss, Rees-Mogg and Dorries stated that she was a ‘stronger’ supporter of Brexit than they were. This is odd when Truss campaigned for Remain and Sunak and Mordaunt campaigned for leave. It is also odd that Truss is seen by them as the ‘Boris continuity candidate’.

Sunak, who was instrumental in furlough and record-breaking NHS spending, is the Johnson continuity candidate

She is a Thatcherite, Johnson is not. Johnson is not really anything; he is a vacuum, anyone can state he is whatever they want him to be (potentially how he is able to win elections so well), but the 2019 Johnson was a big state, big spend Prime Minister. If anything, Sunak, who was instrumental in furlough and record-breaking NHS spending, is the Johnson continuity candidate, despite the fact that Johnson loyalists loathe him.

Another thing to note is the historic nature of the diversity of this competition. It is the case that the next leader of the Conservative Party will be a Prime Minister of ethnic minority or Britain’s third female Prime Minister. The leadership competition has seen more ethnic minority candidates than have ever served in a Labour Party Cabinet.

As we are not the USA, a new Prime Minister does not equal a new President and thus there is no such thing as a personal mandate that requires an election. To see how long the new Prime Minister will remain in office we may have to wait until we hear from the people in 2024.

Felix Hawes

Featured image courtesy of Heidi Fin via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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