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And they’re off: Kemi Badenoch takes an early lead in the Tory leadership stakes

It is a measure of Rishi Sunak’s weakness that the contest to replace him is in full swing, writes John Rentoul

Saturday 09 December 2023 16:18 GMT
Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, has an article in The Sun saying Brexit was a vote of confidence in the country
Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, has an article in The Sun saying Brexit was a vote of confidence in the country (PA Wire)

We have not one but two articles by Conservative leadership candidates in the newspapers this morning. Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, has an article in The Sun saying Brexit was a vote of confidence in the country. And Robert Jenrick, described by the online version of The Daily Telegraph as “immigration minister”, which was his job until Wednesday, has written a longer version of his resignation letter.

The collapse in Tory discipline has been so rapid that someone who is well connected to what he calls “the party in the shires” has mentioned Bob Hawke to me. This is code between us for a late change of leadership before an election, which is what the Australian Labor Party did in 1983. After the election was called, it ditched Bill Hayden, its uninspiring leader, and put Hawke in. He went on to win not just that election but three more.

That late switch was made in opposition, but it can be done in government. Anthony Eden went to the country immediately on taking office in April 1955, and in that election increased the Tory majority from 17 to 60. Boris Johnson is the only other recent example, managing to convince his opponents to give him the election he wanted three months after he became leader in 2019.

Those cases are both very different from the situation now, however. Eden was popular and had been the heir presumptive for some time; and the economy was booming. Johnson was quite popular, and many voters accepted that an election was needed to break the Brexit deadlock.

This time, the Conservatives changing leader yet again would look desperate and is likely only to make matters worse for the MPs who would have to make it happen. Even if, in the abstract, they thought that a fresh face might help to save a few seats, the process of making the change could only further damage the party’s reputation.

So we can dismiss talk of “letters going in” and votes of confidence. Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, which supervises leadership elections, has become more talkative about his role since he announced he is leaving the House of Commons at the election. “Colleagues are reluctant to exercise that power” to remove a leader, he said – “the media always think, ‘We must be nearly there,’” but in previous leadership crises he was surprised by journalists’ estimates of the number of letters asking for a vote of confidence, “when the number was actually still relatively low”.

Badenoch and Jenrick are therefore competing in a leadership election that is likely to take place in a year’s time, or a bit later, after a general election in October next year or in January 2025. Badenoch is in the strongest position at the moment. That may not mean much, but it does mean something. We could see the last three Tory leaders, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, coming from some way off. Even David Cameron and Theresa May, who emerged as surprise winners later on, had been talked about as future leaders.

Jenrick, on the other hand, is not in such a strong position, available at the bookmakers at 100 to 1, with Truss quoted as a slightly better chance. Some of his fellow Conservative MPs were surprised this week that he appears to think he has leadership prospects, but others say that he thinks that he ought to be foreign secretary, and that the main reason for his resignation was that Sunak failed to make him home secretary when Suella Braverman was sacked.

His resignation letter and today’s article in the Telegraph confirm that view, in that his plan for Rwanda seems unworkable. Any plan to defy international law would not get past the House of Lords – or even past his own One-Nation colleagues, who venerate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It looks as if he has resigned to position himself for a more senior post in opposition, in the belief that the government is a write-off, rather than on an issue of principle.

That may not tell us much about Jenrick’s leadership prospects, but it tells us something about the likely fate of the prime minister. Sunak managed to unite the parliamentary party for a year, which was a considerable feat. He was much criticised for doing a deal a year ago with Braverman to bring her back to cabinet, but it bought him time. Unfortunately for him, in that time he lost too many of the risky bets he made to try to turn things round, and now party discipline is breaking down again.

He gambled that inflation would halve, and he won. But he gambled that NHS waiting lists would fall and that the boats could be stopped, and he lost those. He thought the Supreme Court would allow the planes to fly to Rwanda and when it refused, he didn’t have much of a back-up plan. It looks as if he will get his new bill, balancing both wings of the party, through the Commons on Tuesday, but only because his opponents on the anti-immigration wing and on the pro-ECHR wing will choose to fight another day.

Another day will be too late. The campaign to replace him has already begun. Badenoch’s article, on the surface, is about defending Brexit from Keir Starmer at the general election – but the second meaning, about reinforcing the Brexit base among Tory members in the leadership election to follow, is not buried deep.

Penny Mordaunt is practising her stony face at Prime Minister’s Questions. James Cleverly is worried that the issues of immigration and asylum have already scuppered his chances. Braverman still thinks that “standard bearer of the anti-immigration wing” is her route to the leadership, but she is unlikely ever to rally enough MPs to it to put her on the ballot. Meanwhile centrists Grant Shapps, Claire Coutinho and Gillian Keegan are milling about in the paddock, waiting to be called to the starting line.

“The fight is not over,” Richard Holden, the Tory party chair, told the Commons press gallery lunch on Thursday. He is right, in the formal sense that there is probably a bit less or a bit more than a year to go until the general election. But while he was speaking, the candidates to replace his boss were limbering up for the contest that will follow election defeat.

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