Boris Johnson has suffered undeniable political harm in becoming the first serving prime minister fined for breaking the law, and things could get worse if he is punished for other lockdown-breaking parties. But, at least so far, there is little appetite for ousting him. Tory MPs cite the Ukraine war, and perhaps more critically the lack of a credible alternative. Here are Johnson’s potential rivals – and why Conservatives fear they do not measure up.
Rishi Sunak: damaged goods
It has not been the best few weeks for the man previously assumed to be the heir in waiting. Firstly his spring statement received a tepid welcome, then last week it emerged that his wife, Akshata Murty, could have avoided about £20m in UK tax by claiming non-domiciled status – she will now pay UK taxes on overseas income – and that Sunak himself held a US green card for six years as an MP, and for 19 months as chancellor. If that was not enough, Sunak was also fined for attending Johnson’s birthday party in June 2020. A number of Tory MPs already held private doubts about Sunak’s political instincts, and their worries have seemingly been confirmed.
Liz Truss: lack of voter appeal
The foreign secretary, who also holds David Frost’s former Brexit brief, remains avowedly popular with Tory members, the electorate who would ultimately choose who should replace Johnson. Truss was a fixture at the top of the ConservativeHome website’s much-scrutinised cabinet league table based on members’ views, and even now remains in the top five, with a net approval rate of plus 61%. But to reach the final vote, she first needs the backing of enough fellow Conservative MPs – and a number of them have doubts about Truss’s ability to keep them in parliament, a worry backed up by polling. She also attracted criticism when she said she would back Britons going to Ukraine to join the fight against the Russians, with colleagues saying this would be reckless and illegal. Being a militantly free market, pro-Brexit (albeit on a born-again basis), culture war-friendly, tank-borrowing Instagram fixture might tickle the preferences of the Tory faithful. But is that enough to lead the country?
Ben Wallace: too much of a punt
Replacing Truss at the peak of the ConservativeHome charts, with a whopping plus 85% approval rating, is the defence secretary, who has achieved renown through the distinctly old-fashioned route of being seen to do his job quietly and effectively. A relatively late entrant to the cabinet – he became an MP in 2005 and only came to the top table in 2019, in his current job – Wallace’s profile rose through his role in the withdrawal from Kabul, and the contrast between his sober style and the desk-dodging beach antics of the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab. The Ukraine war has led to Wallace’s position rising still further, though he was recently duped into speaking by phone to an impostor – believed to have been a Russian state actor – posing as the Ukrainian prime minister. He is, however, relatively little known outside political circles, while his remain-backing background could count against him among Tory members.
Nadhim Zahawi: unproved … and too rich?
The education secretary comes second to Wallace in the Tory member rankings, and enjoys a reputation for unfussy competence, one created in his year as Covid vaccines minister, itself a happy reminder for Conservative MPs of a time where voters believed the government was getting something right and rewarded them in opinion polling. Zahawi also has that most precious of political commodities: a resonant backstory, having moved to the UK aged nine with his Iraqi-Kurdish parents, arriving with no English at all. Potentially counting against Zahawi is his relative inexperience, with only six months in cabinet and four as a minister. Another issue could be whether, after the experience of Sunak, Tory MPs want to consider someone else with extensive business interests and great personal wealth, in Zahawi’s case including a reported £100m property portfolio.
Jeremy Hunt: too liberal/linked to the May era
Hunt has played a canny game since Johnson took over, managing to remain a significant figure in parliament while also not being in government and having to sign up to the PM’s doctrine. In chairing the health committee and co-leading its Covid inquiry, and popping up in repeated Commons debates, Hunt has been a critical loyalist, and is – the assumption goes – positioning himself as a competent, less controversial alternative should Johnson fall. The issue for Hunt is that too many fellow Tory MPs, particularly the more gung-ho 2019 intake, may see him as an over-liberal throwback to the dim days of Theresa May’s tenure, while the party’s members have already soundly rejected him once when they chose Johnson instead.
Tom Tugendhat: an unknown quantity
The mixed fortunes of so many mainstream would-be successors to Johnson has led pundits to cast their prediction net more widely, with Tugendhat mentioned frequently as a possible outside chance. In the Tonbridge MP’s favour, he would certainly be a change from Johnson – who Tugendhat very clearly dislikes – with his long pre-parliament army service and straightforward reputation. But it would be a big political ask. In the Commons since 2015, Tugendhat has never held any frontbench role, his highest office being chair of the foreign affairs committee. Also, for all his hawkish stances on foreign affairs, for example with China, Tugendhat is viewed by many colleagues as a centrist, perhaps not the most popular stance within the party.