With the first round of voting in the Conservative Party leadership election taking place yesterday (13 July), we wanted to provide an update on how the process will unfold and a summary of the eight candidates still in the running. This comes after former Cabinet ministers Grant Shapps (who has backed Rishi Sunak) and Sajid Javid dropped out the race on Tuesday having failed to secure the 20 MP nominations required to make the ballot.
On Monday, the backbench 1922 Committee confirmed a truncated timeline for the candidates to be whittled down to two by the time Parliament goes into recess on Thursday 21 July. Over the summer Tory members will cast their votes as the final two embark upon a gruelling nationwide campaign, with the result to be announced on Monday 5 September. The winner will, of course, become the UK’s next Prime Minister.
Rishi Sunak currently leads the way with 47 publicly declared MP nominations. Alongside Shapps, the Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab pledged his support on Tuesday with the Health Secretary Steve Barclay following suit yesterday morning. Sunak’s campaign has centred on his dismissal of “fairtytale” economics, claiming that the rises to corporation tax and National Insurance he announced as Chancellor were necessary to balance the books post-Covid. However, he has argued that tax cuts are ultimately “a matter of when, not if” and emphasised his desire to shrink the size of the state. The former junior local government minister, Kemi Badenoch, is the only other candidate not to have promised a series of immediate tax cuts if elected. She has the surprise backing of ‘big beast’ Michael Gove and is considered a dark horse in the contest, though it seems unlikely that she will make it to the final two.
There are several candidates battling to become the favoured candidate of the Tory right, with ‘Brexit opportunities’ inevitably taking centre stage within that subsection of the debate. The Attorney General Suella Braverman is pitching herself as a Brexit purist who would cut red tape, “resolve” the Northern Ireland Protocol, and deliver on Boris Johnson’s election winning manifesto of 2019. Hardcore Brexiteers including Steve Baker and Philip Hollobone are among her supporters.
Nadhim Zahawi, who suddenly became Chancellor as Johnson’s government fell apart last week, is a member of the ‘Take Back Control’ brigade and has the most compelling backstory of any candidate left in the race. Born in Iraq, he fled with his family to the UK at the age of 11 unable to speak a word of English, only to found the polling company YouGov and build a fortune worth a reported £100 million. It may be his fortune that scuppers his chances, though: HMRC is currently investigating his tax affairs.
The Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was a vocal Remainer back in 2016 but has performed a remarkable 180-degree turn to vociferously support the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The extent of her volte face is demonstrated by the support of right-wing Cabinet ministers Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit Opportunities Minister. Truss is a low tax, small state, free marketeer with a Thatcherite bent and will point to her high-level government experience as evidence that she can step up to the top job.
Some have argued that Penny Mordaunt stands to benefit from a split in the Tory right. She currently has the second highest number of MP endorsements and has run a strong early campaign, boosted by a ConservativeHome poll which found her to be the most popular candidate among the party’s grassroots.
Tom Tugendhat and Jeremy Hunt remain in the race, but at this stage they appear to have been crowded out by their rivals.
We are reluctant to make firm predictions at this stage, with Conservative leadership races having produced some surprising outcomes in recent times. (It was only on the day nominations closed in 2016, the equivalent of yesterday in this year’s process, that Boris Johnson shocked the political world by pulling out of the running. Few would have predicted at that stage that Andrea Leadsom would have made the final two, or Theresa May gone on to become Prime Minister without so much as a ballot of the membership.)
However, Rishi Sunak’s flurry of early endorsements – a legacy of the plaudits he won for decisions taken at the start of Covid-19 pandemic – appear likely to have secured his spot in the final two. As mentioned, the second finalist will be the candidate who persuades the right that they will carry the Brexit flame and, probably more importantly in this campaign, set out an economic vision that will tackle the cost of living crisis via a series of tax cuts and curb inflation at the same time. Jumpstarting the UK’s faltering economy and supporting struggling households will be the battleground over which the six and a half weeks are fought.