Mercifully, on 20 October, Liz Truss bowed to the inevitable following a calamitous loss of confidence amongst the Conservative parliamentary ranks, as her authority and credibility was swept away in recent weeks.
Her replacement as PM will be in office within seven days. Nominations will close on Monday lunchtime and with the bar for nomination set at 100 MPs it is possible that the contest will end there and then. More likely, if two or three contenders pass this initial barrier (there are some 355 Tory MPs currently in receipt of the whip and each is permitted to nominate no more than one candidate) a contest will take place involving the 170,000 Party members voting electronically to choose between the two leading contenders by lunchtime on Friday 28 October.
Sadly, for both the nation and the Conservative Party, the seemingly endless drama of recent months may not be resolved even after this latest election. In truth the Party may be ungovernable; if this last chance saloon contest does not resolve the deep divisions of policy and personality that have plagued the Conservatives since the Brexit vote in 2016, then a General Election (for which there is already a substantial and rising clamour) may be the only way forward.
Yet the truth is that none of the likely contenders comes without baggage.
Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor (not the most exclusive club in modern British politics – he has had no fewer than three successors since he left office on 6 July) is the bookmakers’ favourite. By not serving in the short-lived Truss administration, and having all his economic warnings richly vindicated, he is probably the only Conservative to have seen his reputation rise in the past 44 days. However, he also has a large number of MPs and Party Members, especially on the right of the Party, totally unreconciled to both his economic strategy and his perceived central involvement in the defenestration of Boris Johnson to which many remain unreconciled.
It is rumoured that Boris Johnson himself may seek a return. I have my doubts. In truth it is probably too soon after the traumatic events of the first week of July (when over 50 serving Ministers walked out of his government). He also faces the unresolved Privileges Committee investigation which might result in a suspension and constituency by-election recall. Whilst he has many committed followers in the Party and the country (I have little doubt that if he were to make it to the final two, he would win) his re-emergence would certainly prolong the political melodrama. In their hearts many MPs simply want calm administration to be restored – so in these circumstances he cannot be assured of securing the 100 nominations needed. His acute political antennae will probably recognise this, and I suspect by the end of this weekend he will announce that he is not a contestant.
This may leave open a narrow window of opportunity for one of two hardline-Brexiteer candidates from the Right of the Party who would stand to pick up much of the putative Boris support: Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch, the latter of whom was reputedly the Party members’ favourite over the summer. Both served in the Truss Cabinet, with Braverman enhancing her hardliner credentials by resigning over immigration policy.
In these circumstances, Penny Mordaunt, who narrowly failed to make the final two run-off this summer (having been in the frame for the first four of the five exhaustive parliamentary ballots) may position herself as the Unity candidate. She certainly has fewer vociferous enemies (although her views on trans rights and other cultural matters have raised concerns with some in the Party) but her boundless ambition, mixed record in office and determination to have her own way regardless of conflicting advice is all too reminiscent of the outgoing PM. On the other hand, she has a wide range of allies and admirers across the Party and is a strong media performer, so cannot be ruled out.
Written on 21 October 2022 by The Rt Hon Mark Field, former Member of Parliament (MP) for Cities of London and Westminster and Consultant at Buchler Phillips, the UK’s leading independent corporate recovery, restructuring and turnaround boutique firm.