There are one or two dark horses
After last night’s no confidence vote, from which Boris Johnson emerged victorious but battered, it seems a question of when, not if, a leadership challenge arrives.
148 of Johnson’s parliamentary colleagues no longer trust the Prime Minister. In an era of renewed seriousness, from Covid to rising inflation, it’s difficult to see how a political brand built on bluster can come back.
From a Labour perspective, there are some candidates who are more threatening than others. The media favourite may be Jeremy Hunt, but it’s difficult to envisage him as leader when even Nadine Dorries can generate a powerful line of attack — namely that he was the Health Secretary who failed to prepare for the pandemic. As much as the former Health Secretary is loved by TV studios and London pundits, he is associated with neither ‘levelling up’ nor Brexit — and it was on these two pillars that the Tories thrashed Labour. From the Left’s perspective a centrist Tory faced with 10% inflation should be an easier fight — especially when he has his own party to face down.
For all the hype, Sajid Javid has the repartee and charisma of a somnambulant bank clerk, while Tom Tugenhadt is prone to flights of irrational anger (he touted the expulsion of all Russian nationals earlier this year, presumably including those critical of the Kremlin). More than ever the Conservative party needs a steady hand on the tiller, especially if you are removing a leader like Johnson — who despite everything has repeatedly won. On the economy Tugenhat has little to offer, while Javid’s brand of libertarianism is incongruent with the challenges of inflation and de-globalisation.
That leaves three individuals that Labour might be more fearful of. The first, and arguably weakest, is Liz Truss. A Margaret Thatcher tribute act in a world of high inflation and low growth might appeal to some Tories, but could possibly lead to greater calamity. The removal of Johnson is risky enough — no need for a substitute whose most memorable media moment was describing the vagaries of English cheese.
A more serious prospect is Penny Mordaunt. Not only is she a Royal Navy reservist but also a strong orator, as evidenced by her dismantling of Labour’s Angela Rayner earlier this year. She would also be the third woman to lead the Tory party — all the more conspicuous given Labour is yet to have its first.
But I think the candidate most likely to concern Labour is the Defence Secretary. Ben Wallace has seen his profile rise immeasurably during the Ukraine crisis and, importantly, the former Scots Guard has few strong associations with the Johnson premiership in the way Truss or Sunak do. Like Mordaunt, he has deftly avoided the swivel-eyed tendencies of Dorries and Rees-Mogg — particularly on Brexit. What’s more, in a field of disliked individuals, the fact that he is relatively unknown among the public is likely to be an advantage. While Johnson is disliked, so is Starmer — the best response is probably a (relatively) fresh face.
Labour is keen to present Starmer as an understated man of action — the remedy to Johnson’s bombast and ineptitude. But Wallace would be best placed to neutralise that supposed threat, particularly if the Ukraine crisis intensifies and the government situates the cost of living crisis within a context of national emergency. A former Director of Public Prosecutions is a strong fit for an era of seriousness, but a Sandhurst graduate is even better.
The question, then, is: do the Tories want a dull, effective leader when they are obsessed — even now — with more tax cuts and shrinking the state? Wallace can probably hit the right notes, but he will also need clearer policies on levelling up and the economy. Free market homilies will not be enough.
And Johnson? For all the attention on his personality, a focus on substantive problem-solving — from Brexit to high streets and regional inequality — are what earned him his mandate and stole Labour’s thunder. His legacy will likely be that the man wasn’t as serious as his agenda or times. After the Covid deaths, price rises — and soon spiralling interest rates — his frivolity will only further grate.