Tory leadership contest unofficially under way – with Wallace party favourite

Some potential contenders have already made their ambitions clear, while others are yet to announce their candidacy.

Sophie Wingate
Thursday 07 July 2022 18:02 BST
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is the clear favourite for next leader among Tory party members, according to a YouGov poll (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is the clear favourite for next leader among Tory party members, according to a YouGov poll (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Wire)

The Tory leadership contest is now unofficially under way, with Boris Johnson’s resignation setting the wheels in motion for a new prime minister to take the reins.

Mr Johnson intends to remain in office until his successor is elected, a process which could take months, prompting a backlash from party grandees and political opponents over his attempt to “cling on” in No 10 until the autumn.

But with his departure firing the starting gun for a contest to replace him, attention has turned to potential successors.

The clear favourite to replace Mr Johnson among Tory party members is Ben Wallace, according to a new YouGov poll.

The Defence Secretary, who has not yet announced a leadership bid, has won admirers in Westminster for his straight-talking and straightforward approach, particularly among Conservative MPs who applauded his push for increased UK defence spending.

Mr Wallace, who served in the Scots Guards, was a key voice in the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and this increased exposure could assist any leadership bid.

Hot on his heels in YouGov’s popularity ranking is Penny Mordaunt, who made waves in 2019 as the UK’s first female defence secretary before being fired by Mr Johnson shortly after he became Prime Minister.

The Brexit-backing trade minister is reported to have a campaign team in place.

Penny Mordaunt is a potential candidate who is proving popular among Conservative party members (Aaron Chown/PA)
Penny Mordaunt is a potential candidate who is proving popular among Conservative party members (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Archive)

Other big beasts who have not yet announced their candidacy include Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, whose resignations from Cabinet on Tuesday triggered the mass exodus that ultimately crippled Mr Johnson’s leadership.

Mr Sunak, whom the YouGov poll puts in third place, was regarded as a frontrunner before his stock took a tumble following disclosures that his wife had non-dom status for tax purposes.

The PA news agency understands that Mr Javid, the former health secretary, is seriously considering running, as is Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

Mr Shapps, who was key to the Prime Minister’s fight for survival during partygate, was among the Cabinet ministers telling Mr Johnson to stand down on Wednesday.

Some Tories have already made their ambitions clear. Attorney General Suella Braverman launched an unlikely leadership bid as support for Mr Johnson crumbled around him on Wednesday night.

Previously a loyalist to the departing PM, she told Peston on ITV that he had handled matters “appallingly” in recent days and that “the balance has tipped now in favour of saying that the Prime Minister – it pains me to say it – but it’s time to go”.

Attorney General Suella Braverman (Victoria Jones/PA)
Attorney General Suella Braverman (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Ms Braverman, who was first elected as an MP in 2015, will be regarded as something of an outsider for the leadership given the party grandees already tipped to be running.

Prominent Brexiteer and former minister Steve Baker, a senior Tory backbencher, also confirmed on Thursday he is seriously considering putting himself forward for the top job.

He told Times Radio people are asking him to do it, and it would be “dismissive and disrespectful” if he did not heed expressions of support, though he said he regards the prospect with “something akin to dread”.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has made little secret of her leadership ambitions, with a series of high-profile interventions and photo opportunities in which she appeared to be channelling late PM Margaret Thatcher.

Despite being a fervent Johnson loyalist, she was nowhere to be seen as the Government crumbled around him.

She has cut short an official trip to Indonesia and was expected to issue a statement soon, sources close to her said.

Despite not routinely featuring among those tipped to take the PM’s place, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng may have raised eyebrows with an intervention on Thursday morning, saying the country needs a leader who can “rebuild trust”, and that person should take charge “as soon as practicable”.

Sir Robert Buckland, who has just been appointed the new Secretary of State for Wales, has declined to rule out running as Tory leader.

However, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is not planning to stand to become the next Conservative Party leader, PA understands.

The exact timetable for the leadership contest is agreed by the 1922 Committee and Tory Party HQ, with Conservative MPs and party members playing a decisive role in electing the next leader.

Tory MPs will whittle down the candidates to a final two through a balloting process, with party members then voting on who they would prefer.

In the meantime, Mr Johnson will remain as a caretaker prime minister.

But critics of the outgoing PM have suggested he should not be allowed to stay in office until the autumn.

Many agree with senior Tory MP Sir Bob Neill’s suggestion that two ballots should be held a day to accelerate the process and have a result in the summer.

Former prime minister Theresa May was asked if she would be prepared to act as a caretaker, but said: “I don’t think there’s going to be a caretaker prime minister in the sense of somebody else coming into that role.”

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