Tory leadership plots are on their way to joining death and taxes as one of life’s constants. After a botched rebellion by Simon Clarke last week, rumours are once again circling Westminster of plans to oust Rishi Sunak as leader. The responses to the whispers are just as revealing, with frontrunner Kemi Badenoch keen to distance herself from the conspiracy — a sign not just of loyalty, but that a regicide now would not be in her interests.
It would take a miracle for Sunak to still be in post as Tory leader a year from now. Either some plot will succeed in the coming months, or else he will fall on his sword shortly after the election defeat. The issue for the party now is that competing factions have vastly different interests in which of those should happen. After the election, maybe 200 or more MPs will have disappeared into defeat. If those are your supporters, then they will be of little help when it comes to a post-election leadership contest.
This is one of the reasons Badenoch is wise to defend Sunak. As the current favourite to replace him, moving now would be foolish. There is little that can realistically be done to change the party for the next election. A new leadership contest would make the Tories look more chaotic, and push the party further into a death loop. If a candidate is widely popular with both members and MPs likely to keep their seats, as Badenoch is, there is no sense in pushing the button now.
Others don’t have that luxury. Potential leaders like Suella Braverman have their power base among the MPs of the 2019 intake. Many of these are more punchily Right-wing, and far more worried about the next election than anything that comes after it — because the next poll is make or break for their political careers. They are keenest to agitate now since they have little to lose and, if a potential leader is relying on them for support, this becomes useless when they are booted out by the electorate.
This is why the frontrunners who have their eye on post-election contests are keeping their voices down. The two-stage nature of the process means a trade-off between appealing to members and MPs. This is especially nuanced when up to half of the latter are about to disappear. The safest seats tend towards moderate MPs, picked for future ministerial ability rather than gutsy political fighting. This bloc will have an outsized influence when it comes to picking the next leader.
These MPs are likely to look for a more moderate, more pragmatic leader. Hence the ambitious have been burnishing those credentials rather than agitating. In her trade role, Badenoch has been shrewd rather than hardline when it comes to post-Brexit deals and regulations. James Cleverly, a dark horse in the contest but popular with members, has also been far quieter as Home Secretary. Even Priti Patel, a potential challenger from the Right, was quick to turn on Simon Clarke when he publicly went for the Prime Minister this week.
Tory infighting is a perpetual mess of game theory, bluff and double-bluff. To fully understand the moves in the current round, one needs to grasp how the various factions are placed when the electoral tide changes. Moving sooner, rather than later, benefits those whose supporters are likely to hold their seats. For the others, patience may deliver better chances and a greater reward.