LONDON — With Boris Johnson out of the frame, Tory party heavy hitters have begun scrapping for his job — along with a fair few lightweights, too.
Already, the field of potential candidates to be Conservative Party leader is shaping up to be larger than ever as ambitious MPs weigh up their chances. With no runaway favorite to succeed Johnson, the contest appears wide open.
POLITICO takes you through the likely runners and riders so far.
Rishi Sunak | Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
The former chancellor, who resigned nine minutes after former Cabinet colleague Sajid Javid on Tuesday, has bounced back after his wife’s tax scandal delivered a big blow to his reputation and is an early frontrunner, officially launching his leadership bid on Friday with the slogan “Ready for Rishi.”
In a video, he related how his grandmother came to the U.K. from India in the 1960s, and presented himself as a responsible pair of hands at a time of growing economic uncertainty, along with a core message of “patriotism, fairness [and] hard work.”
His youth — he’s 42 — is seen both as a pro and a con. His supporters include former chief whip Mark Spencer and ex-Cabinet minister Liam Fox, but he has come under fire from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker on the right of the party over taxation policies.
Sunak held the second-highest-ranking job in government, in which he tried to keep public spending and taxes low despite sustained pressure from Johnson to splurge cash in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But “Dishy Rishi” — as he’s been nicknamed for his slick personal brand stamped on major Treasury announcements — may need to persuade fellow Tories that he’s got sufficient political experience. Some believe he needs to spend more time in other government departments before rising to the very top.
Although he supports Brexit, he reportedly opposed calls by David Frost, Britain’s former chief Brexit negotiator, to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol last November and expressed concerns about the government’s current unilateral plan to switch off parts of it, amid fears it could plunge Britain into a trade war with the EU at a time of huge economic uncertainty.
But he’s also said the protocol is causing economic and political harm and needs fixing.
There’s speculation he could eventually run in a joint ticket with Javid, with whom he’s got many things in common, including an Asian and finance background, and a love of Star Wars films.
Ben Wallace | WPA Pool/Getty Images
Among the early favorites, according to bookies and pollsters, the 52-year-old defense secretary has enhanced his reputation through a robust and statesmanlike response to the war in Ukraine as well as an emotional defense of Afghans who helped British troops in Afghanistan during the country’s evacuation last year.
He’s unusual among senior Tories in that he didn’t go to university, attending military school instead and joining the Scots Guards, with whom he served in Germany, Cyprus, Belize and Northern Ireland during the 1990s.
His defense secretary job came as a reward for running Johnson’s Conservative leadership campaign in 2019. In Cabinet, he’s consistently pushed for more defense investment — a background that will help him win support from some Tory MPs, who say he’s the right leader for wartime. The traditionalist party grassroots will also warm to his military career.
At COP26, Wallace acknowledged the need to reduce military emissions, and during his time as defense secretary the army has invested in prototype electric hybrid armored, logistic and reconnaissance vehicles.
The MP for Wyre and Preston North voted against the legalization of gay marriage in England and Wales and opposed LGBTQ+ people joining the armed forces. But later he described these views as “rubbish” and launched an independent review into LGBTQ+ veterans affected by a ban on homosexuality in the military lifted in 2000.
Wallace has not made a pitch for the leadership yet, but he hasn’t ruled it out either.
Sajid Javid | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
The first Cabinet minister to jump ship on Tuesday, Javid appears to have read the mood of the Conservative Party perfectly. His decision to quit as health secretary triggered the deluge of resignations that ultimately toppled Johnson.
Arguably, he has done more than any senior Tory to set the direction for events in recent days — publicly shaming his former Cabinet colleagues to act in a withering resignation statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday. Within hours, a group of them were in No. 10 telling Johnson to go.
Javid has led six government departments under the last three Tory prime ministers, having also served as secretary of state for culture, business, housing, home affairs and as chancellor of the exchequer. The most common criticism leveled at him is that he’s not been in a Cabinet job long enough to make an impact.
He resigned as chancellor in February 2020 in a power struggle with Johnson and his then top aide Dominic Cummings. Johnson brought him back to government as health secretary in June 2021.
The son of Pakistani immigrants, Javid attended a state-funded school and worked in finance in the City of London, New York and Singapore before entering politics.
A declared Thatcherite and fan of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, Javid advocates the small state, low taxes and restrictions to strikes affecting public services. In April, he admitted having held “non-dom” status for six years before his political career, which allowed him to legally avoid tax on overseas earnings.
On Brexit, the MP for Bromsgrove agonized before supporting Remain in the 2016 referendum. Later he said he would be prepared to take Britain out of the EU without a deal when he stood for election as Conservative leader in 2019 — a candidacy funded by both Remain and Leave-supporting Tory donors.
Brexit watchers shouldn’t expect him to bring Britain back into the EU’s orbit: in January 2020 he said the U.K. should stay out of the single market and customs union.
Javid hasn’t declared his intention to run this time, but his resignation statement in the Commons Wednesday was seen by many as a veiled leadership pitch.
Liz Truss | Victoria Jones/WPA Pool/Getty Images
The foreign secretary, who cut short a trip to a G20 meeting in Indonesia to return to London, is a favorite among the Tory grassroots but will have to work hard to win the support of the parliamentary party.
Truss backed remaining in the EU at the 2016 referendum, though she’s long been a Euroskeptic.
Her rise to prime minister would probably prolong the chill that has characterized British-EU relations since Brexit. She’s the minister responsible for the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which Brussels opposes.
Truss started preparing for a leadership bid months ago, with an aggressive social media campaign and growing closer to hardline Brexiteers in the Tory party, to whom she showed her draft bill before presenting it in parliament.
The daughter of left-wing parents, Truss comes from the libertarian wing of the Conservatives. She’s an experienced Cabinet member after leading Britain’s international trade, justice, and environmental policies. In this role, she declared that she fully believed that climate change is happening and humans have contributed to it.
Nadhim Zahawi | Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images
Appointed chancellor after Sunak’s dramatic resignation, Zahawi has been credited with the success of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out and a self-made business leader background.
Born in Baghdad, he moved to Britain in the mid-1970s with his Kurdish family fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 2000, he co-founded polling company YouGov which he led until February 2010, the year when he was elected MP for Stratford-on-Avon.
Reportedly one of the wealthiest lawmakers in the Westminster parliament, Zahawi’s challenges will include handling questions over his own financial background. An investigation was reportedly held into his finances by the National Crime Agency, he’s faced scrutiny over financial dealings with offshore firms, and took two jobs at Gulf Keystone Petroleum — including one after being elected MP — which raise doubts about his commitment to fighting climate change.
On Wednesday, he pledged a review of tax policies with a view to slashing them, and it was revealed he had spent months working with Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby on a leadership bid.
Penny Mordaunt | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
In her early career, Mordaunt’s main claim to fame was the time when she put on a swimsuit and took part in a television diving show called Splash! She also earned a telling off for making a spoof speech in the Commons in which she repeatedly used a number of slang sexual terms (“cock”, “lay” and “laid”) during a debate on poultry welfare. She apparently did it for a bet.
The trade minister and former defense secretary is well-liked among MPs in northern England — the area known as Red Wall which switched from Labour to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election.
She has a long association with the military and has lived in the naval city of Portsmouth, where she is MP, since she was two.
Mordaunt is a Brexiteer who accused the EU of “pushing its regulatory system on the rest of the world” and described Britain’s exit as “a massive opportunity.”
She has been praised for her support for the LGBTQ+ community and became the first minister to use sign language at the dispatch box.
More recently, she’s opposed Sunak’s decision to raise National Insurance and corporation tax.
Mordaunt has yet to declare her intention to stand as a candidate but pollster YouGov ranks her second in its popularity chart, after Wallace and ahead of Sunak and Truss.
Tom Tugendhat | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
The Commons foreign affairs chair, who hails from the One Nation caucus of centrist Tories, has expressed an interest in the prime minister job and called for a “clean start.”
His lack of Cabinet experience and his Remain-supporting background pose big challenges for his bid, but his military career is an advantage.
Son of a High Court judge, Tugendhat had a colorful career before entering politics, having worked as a journalist, a public relations consultant in the Middle East, and an officer in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Despite being out of government, he has been influential in foreign policy. He’s criticized the government for failing to tackle the laundering of Russian money in the U.K. and the rushed withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan last year. He co-founded the China Research Group, ostensibly a caucus dedicated to better understanding of the country and its influence in the U.K. which has helped mobilize a Sinoskeptic turn in the Conservative Party.
Married to a French diplomat, he’s advocated a closer relationship with the EU after Brexit, and supported the idea of a formal mechanism with European partners to coordinate foreign policy decisions.
Jeremy Hunt | Peter Summers/Getty Images
A former Cabinet heavy hitter, Hunt has spent the last couple of years biding his time for another shot at the Tory leadership.
He’s regarded as one of the possible candidates that could bring together the different Tory families, after having winked to the hardline Brexiteers recently but kept ties with the center of the party. He is considered a “safe pair of hands” after Johnson, though his critics fear he would be too dull to appeal to the public.
A former foreign secretary who speaks Japanese, he has continued to promote Britain’s return to the global stage, calling for more investment in the U.K.’s soft power and diplomatic networks. He’s also argued there are “technical solutions” to solve the issues linked to the Northern Ireland protocol — but blamed the EU for not coming to the table.
During his time as chair of the Commons health committee, Hunt penned a book on how the National Health Service could reduce the number of avoidable deaths with lessons from his time as health secretary, including a recognition of the impact lack of funding had on delivery.
However, the popularity of the MP for South West Surrey in the polls has plummeted in recent weeks and he does not enjoy the backing of the U.K.’s influential, right-leaning tabloid newspapers.
Others who have declared early or who may be keen to test the waters and stand include: Attorney General Suella Braverman – who has the backing of Steve Baker, a prominent hardline Brexiteer and skeptic of the government’s climate policies; newly promoted Welsh Secretary Robert Buckland; and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. On Saturday, Kemi Badenoch, who resigned on Wednesday as equalities minister, threw her hat into the ring.
This article has been updated.