Conservative Party Leaders: Runners and Riders | Sarah Stook

Every week, somebody reports that a Tory MP is annoyed and that Theresa May is on ‘borrowed time.’ Fourteen months after she was first considered to be on her last legs, the PM is still at home in Number 10 Downing Street. We are yet to find something that breaks her, surviving the back to back resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson after the unpopular Checkers Agreement along with plenty other scandals. Like her opposite number on the Opposition benches, May is yet to be forced out of office.

One day, however, May will go. Whether it’s on her own terms or if it’s a coup by her party, we do not know, but May cannot last forever and somebody else will take over as party leader and eventually, Prime Minister. Unlike the American system of relative anonymity, the next leader will be someone well known to MPs, regular members and the public at large. The following have all been floated as leaders, but the chances for them all vary. Who could it be?


Boris Johnson

MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, former Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary

William Hill Odds: 9/2

Headline grabber who rose to fame as a journalist on Have I Got News For You, Boris Johnson has been touted as a future Tory leader since his arrival on the scene as Mayor of London. Hopelessly posh with a mop of blond hair, he is one of the most well know and polarising figures in British politics.

In Favour:

  • Popular with the grassroots for his humour and outspoken nature, he has a very real chance of reinvigorating a membership that has become dejected by a dull May premiership. Considering that these are the grassroots who knock on doors every weekend, they are hugely important. Though often controversial, he is also somewhat popular with non-Tories, mainly due to his non-PC comments that strike a chord with Middle Britain. A leader who is clear in their vision and can speak to a wide audience is one that can win over a lot of people- hence the rise of the also controversial President Donald Trump.
  • A man with experience, he has held plenty of positions. As a former member of Cabinet, he has experience in day to day running of the country and is able to work with others who will help in governing, particularly those who may have disagreements with him. London, an increasingly Labour and Remain area, was governed by the man for two terms as Mayor, meaning he may hit a key demographic for the party. Before his time in parliament, Johnson was a journalist, which means he has a pulse on how the media works- knowing how to spin it.


  • Currently the party machine has rules that will make him less likely to get in. When the contenders are announced, MPs vote for them in rounds until two remain, the winner being chosen in a ballot by members. Though Johnson could walk a members’ vote, getting through the MPs could be hard. He would have loyalists like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Philip Davies, but would receive a strong block of dissent from members like Anna Soubry and Kenneth Clark, who hold powerful sway among MPs. Even Brexiters could be wary, causing a problem.
  • There is also a question of whether he is a toxic asset. Though popular among ground campaigners, he will be unpopular on the left, with the staunch FBPE crowd and with those angry at his controversial statements, especially the recent ones on burkas. Theresa May is disliked by members, but was a remainer who was seen as a safe pair of hands and as a moderate, whilst Johnson’s comments and links with men like Steve Bannon could cause issues in certain constituencies, such as ones vulnerable to the Lib Dems.

Will He Run? It’s almost certain, the only reason he didn’t before was because Gove got their first. His Downing Street ambitions are widely known and he has been aching for the spot for years. It’s not a case of how, but when.


Jacob Rees-Mogg 

MP For North East Somerset and Chair of the European Research Group

William Hill Odds: 11/2

The Right Honourable Member for the Nineteenth Century, Rees-Mogg is singularly eccentric and old fashioned in a way others aren’t. A hero amongst Conservative members and others on the right, Rees-Mogg is the object of ‘Moggmentum,’ a campaign to get him into power.

In Favour:

  • A man with popular appeal and one of the first meme politicians. Though liked by older, more steadfast members, he is most popular amongst millennial Tories who have placed him in high esteem through meme pages across Facebook and other social media. A man who is an incredible speaker, he easily disarms opponents through his calm and reasoned speaking, making him a favourite on Question Time. This would be hugely important for a leader, considering the robotic persona of May and her inability to charm the masses.
  • As the UKIP vote starts to tip away from the Conservatives due to their mishandling of Brexit, the party needs someone to pull back potential votes. As a prominent Brexiter with a history of staunch Eurospecticism and a non-PC viewpoint, Rees-Mogg could easily be the Pied Piper to the wavering UKIP voter. As Nigel Farage, a friend, constantly praises him, along with other non-Tory conservatives


  • Ultra-posh and ultra-conservative, he may alienate more voters than he would gain. Even moderate and liberal Tories, loyal to party, may not be able to stomach him if he got to the final two and he could lose votes from them in a general election. There is virtually no chance of any left leaning voters going for him and Lib Dems would flock further away than they would for Johnson. MPs and members may take that in mind when it comes to casting their ballot.
  • He is not likely to run. Though rumours have circulated that he is interested in the top job, Rees-Mogg seems much happier on the backbenches and is much more likely to go for the Speakership once Bercow leaves. A Prime Minister often must not admit their true feelings, likely repelling the outspoken Mogg. We could be wrong, but it is simply unlikely.

Will He Run? Nearly definitely not, but there is a small chance of it. He is more likely to be Speaker of the House due to his knowledge and love of parliamentary history, even though it also requires him to keep his mouth shut.


Philip Hammond

MP For Runnymede and Weybridge, Current Chancellor and Former Secretary for Defence, Transport and Foreign Office.

William Hill Odds: 40/1

The dreary and drab Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hammond is seen as a safe pair of hands as compared to the more maverick Johnson and Rees-Mogg. His status as a chief remainer has caused problems with the more Eurosceptic grassroots.

In Favour:

  • Holding four Cabinet positions including a Great Office of State at current, Hammond is extremely experienced in terms of cabinet. These roles are diverse, as is the role of a party leader and potential PM, this may be important. Widely seen as a safe pair of hands like May, he may be able to balance the increasingly rocky Tory ship. Though Europe is seeing a sweep of nationalism and less establishment politicians, the UK seems to be bucking the trend, which could serve Hammond quite well.
  • A Soft Brexiter, he may receive support from more Europhile colleagues, or at least those who don’t want a full Brexit. He would also be important for remainers who may be leaning Lib Dems, especially in target seats.


  • He’s just so boring.
  • With constant criticism from staunch Brexiteers such as Rees-Mogg and former Brexit Secretary David Davis, it may be hard for him to even get past the first stage of voting and it is almost impossible for him to win members votes, especially as a member of the sinking May ship. Not quite as remain as Soubry or Clark, he may not be guaranteed to get the votes from the most ardent Lib Dems and remainers, though more likely than others. A bit of a party centrist, he doesn’t have a strong base of support behind him.

Will He Run? We don’t know. Leadership ambitions seem not to be his cup of tea, preferring to be powerful in other Cabinet positions. It’s not looking too likely.


Sajid Javid  

MP for Bromsgrove, Home Secretary, Former Secretary for CMS, Business and Housing.

William Hill Odds: 9/2

A telegenic young MP who is new to the Home Office, Javid is another safe pair of hands in the Philip Hammond mould, though infinitely more charismatic (though that’s not saying much).  A Thatcherite who lost support by declaring for Remain, he is seen as a rising star in the party.

In Favour:

  • A Thatcherite with a small state approach to things, such as medical marijuana for the very ill, Javid is as far away from May as possible without straying too far from his boss’ very authoritarian line. His fairness in immigration is also noteworthy in this respect- he didn’t want a preference for EU migrants, but also lifted the cap on NHS staff in order to create a more tolerant environment. Many in the party were unimpressed with May’s time as Home Secretary and PM due to her harsh actions, so his more liberal line could be credible.
  • Javid could play into the hands of the right of the party, even with his somewhat liberal actions. Though huge controversy occurred when he stated his lack of opposition to two of the IS ‘Beatles’ receiving the death penalty- a huge change in policy- he received widespread support for his tough stance against terrorists, especially from the party right. On top of this, he set out an inquiry as to why the convicted grooming gang offenders were of a Pakistani origin (very washed away in the press), supported spit hoods for the police and indicated support for stop and search, currently stopped in London.


  • Though he leaned mainly on the fence in the EU, he still called out reluctantly for remain. Still, as a Thatcherite with historically Eurosceptic leanings, it was widely believed he would call for out and many were annoyed when he did. Even so, he was not a hardcore remainer like Osborne and Cameron, so did not endear himself to the remain camp. This fence sitting will not help him at all.
  • Though he has more charisma than the Maybot, Javid is not a natural schmoozer and his previous experiences at the dispatch box have been less than encouraging. He was accused of being dull as Business Secretary and often does not come off well on interviews. Considering May is unpopular due to her lack of human touch, it could also be an issue for Javid.

Will He Run? Likely- he’s got grassroots support and could have loyalty from other MPs. Given these chances, he could well have a chance.


Ruth Davidson

Leader of the Scottish Conservatives, MSP for Edinburgh Central and former MSP for Glasgow

William Hill Odds: 25/1

Leader of the Conservative Party in beautiful Scotland, Davidson is as popular on the liberal conservative benches as Rees-Mogg is on the right. Popular within the party, she is a down to earth Scottish working-class woman.

In Favour:

  • If Scotland hadn’t have delivered some excellent returns for the party in 2017, it would have damaged the majority even more badly and possibly got a Labour coalition in. Ruth Davidson’s liberal conservativism played well in a country with a natural aversion to Tories (especially in the Margaret Thatcher mould). Whilst she may not appeal to the more right wing Brexiters in England or just the Brexiters in Wales, her touch could help swing seats in an important area.
  • Popular with many, Davidson has more common ground than other politicians- working class girl, comprehensive school who wasn’t a career politician, as shown by her military time. She is warm, witty and charismatic, able to bring across ideas without condescending political speech. As an LGBT woman, she breaks the mould of old, straight Tories that dominate the minds of many and she represents a new era.


  • Though popular with those more liberal party members, Davidson is often derided as a ‘Lib Dem.’ Her leadership could be blocked by the conservative bloc such as Rees-Mogg and Philip Davies, whilst the equally conservative grassroots may also be against her. Davidson’s vocal remain stance may also lose her some popularity, especially when she represented the remain side in the Wembley. This could lose her credibility in a party worried by a lack of Brexit success from its current leader.
  • It would also mean that Davidson would probably have to leave her MSP seat, gaining a seat in an English constituency. She would clearly be a parachute candidate, problematic when the local factor is a huge influence and it also could anger the constituent Tories. An election would give rivals a chance to plan a suitable defence against Davidson, especially when she is already a disadvantage. A Scottish Tory could give up their seat for her, but that would make her beholden to them as a favour.

Will She Run? Davidson seems happiest north of the border and she can do a lot better there. She’s much more likely to stay than take that risk, even if she has plenty of popular support.


Michael Gove 

MP for Surrey Heath and Environment Secretary, former Chief Whip, Justice Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Education Secretary

William Hill Odds: 8/1

Another slightly eccentric figure, though with a less privileged background, Gove is hated by some and loved by others, though doesn’t have the acclaim of others. A journalist before arriving into politics, he is popular within the Neocon and Brexit crowd, though he has burned a few bridges.

In Favour:

  • Gove has a history of being effective in his roles, key when coming after the less than competent May. Though he received a flurry of hatred from teachers and unions, his reforms for GCSEs led to an improved results set and increased rigour. As Justice Secretary, he ploughed into justice reform whilst not softening prisons- all while getting into trouble for accusing May of not doing enough about extremism in schools. Whilst some criticise his ban everything stance in DEFRA, Gove has shown a passion for the environment and the ability to get things done.
  • He could appeal to a wide variety of the party. He is fairly liberal on things like the environment and LGBT rights, but has shown a fairly conservative stance on issues like justice. As a Brexiter who fought passionately against the EU, he can appeal against those disenchanted by the Remainer May. In the 2016 election, he got support from MPs as diverse as Nicky Morgan and Rees-Mogg- something that could continue in a leadership election.


  • Whilst his support in the party is popular, he may not have such a big effect on the wider electorate which is something that could be taken into account by voters. Remainers hate him like they do Johnson, as do the teaching population. Whilst they aren’t guaranteed Tory voters, but he could still be someone who could swing votes away from the party. He also will not be forgiven by some party members for his backstabbing of Johnson- Gove has only just come back into the fold.
  • Whilst Gove could bring the party together on ideology, he’s hardly the unity candidate when away from the ballot box. The divisions of Brexit and May have split the party and whilst Gove could have the support of the backbenches, he’s still a party loyalist with close links to the party machine. Without the outsider image that has taken over politics, Gove may not be supported too much after the ballot box when you disregard ideology.

Will He Run? He probably wants a shot, otherwise he wouldn’t have run in 2016, but there’s no guarantee this time. Gove is well liked in DEFRA and probably knows his time has gone, so he might as well stay flying high instead of crashing down.


Priti Patel

MP for Witham, Former International Development Secretary

William Hill Odds: 50/1

A darling of the Tory right, Patel is as tenacious and tough on the backbenches as she was sitting next to May. A daughter of immigrants who was tapped as a rising star many years ago by Cameron, she is much younger than many of her counterparts.

In Favour:

  • Deeply conservative and Thatcherite without being hardcore, Patel definitely will receive support from the 1922 Committee as well as the more right wing grassroots. A Cabinet member who rebelled to support Brexit, Patel does not have the establishment touch and could well capitalise on the anti-elite sentiment rising through politics. If she had the backing of Rees-Mogg and his powerful group in the European Research Committee, she could do well and even with remainers, she could be good for getting on with Brexit or seeing it through during the transition period.
  • Patel represents a new generation of Conservatives, far away from the world of Oxbridge that many of the cabinet did. She went to a comprehensive as well as a non-Oxbridge school, as well as working in the business sector. A second generation immigrant, she rejected the BME label and called herself British foremost, a testament to her belief in integration (though there is nothing wrong with said label). Young and dynamic, she is much better suited to the population than May.


  • Patel is still in political limbo. Her unofficial and unauthorised meetings in Israel had 22,000 watching her plane fly back to the UK. Some still do not trust her for breaking the ministerial code and whilst not the worst thing that she could do, it still showed a lapse in judgment. No longer a Minister but not a true backbencher, Patel is finding herself in no man’s land. This could prove an issue when comparing credibility of candidates.
  • Whilst not quite as traditionalist as Rees-Mogg, Patel is still fairly conservative, which could alienate both more liberal members and MPs, including Anna Soubry and that voting bloc. It would not be as big of a problem as it would be for Rees-Mogg, but it would be something for Patel to take into consideration.

Will She Run? There are reports that’s she’s deeply ambitious and she seems to have the drive, but it may well depend on when it happens. Patel has still got a few years left in her, so could wait til she’s back in the good books before making a play for it.

Amber Rudd 

MP for Hastings and Rye, Former Home Secretary, Energy Sec

William Hill Odds: 40/1

No-nonsense and bright, Rudd is almost the second coming of Theresa May. Liked due to her dependability, Rudd hasn’t had the best of luck in her parliamentary career but has worked quite hard to get herself up. Like Hammond, she’s a safe pair of hands.

In Favour:

  • A steady pair of hands to guide a steady ship, Rudd has all the sensible qualities of May without the coldness. In a party where division reigns, Rudd has the leadership abilities to at least cover up the cracks. She did an excellent job at the party debate during the 2017 election, considering her father had died the night before, showing more courage than May after she ducked out of the debates. Her character is respectable and she has no personal skeletons
  • Said characteristics along with her moderate line, especially on Brexit, may allow the moderate and liberal wings of the party to come together to support her, both members and MPs. Several prominent Brexiters supported Theresa May in the leadership election, such as Gove and James Cleverly, so that support could go to Rudd should she choose to play her cards right and court that vote.


  • The night after the 2017 general election, there was agony for Rudd and for the media as they waited for the returns in Hastings, several recounts occurring. Rudd eventually got away with a 345 majority, which is very tight. A leader with such a tight majority would not serve well, especially since Labour activists would be bussed in excessively for a seat that could be very winnable for them. No Tory wants to be held hostage by 345 votes.
  • Whilst popular with moderates, Rudd is not popular with the grassroots and would not get the support from the very conservative members such as Davies and Rees-Mogg. This may also translate to members, who are often lukewarm in their support. Rudd’s time as Home Secretary was not marked by greatness and her strong Remain support will not win allies in a Brexit time.

Will She Run? Probably not, she’s smart enough to know her position is not tenable and she should just focus on getting a solid majority.


James Cleverly

MP for Braintree and Deputy Chairman of the Party, Former Conservative Leader in the London Assembly

William Hill Odds: 40/1

James Cleverly is a rising star in the way that Priti Patel was. As a former member of the Armed Forces, he has proven popular amongst those tired of career politicians and is liked by the grassroots for his down to earth appeal and witty social media.

In Favour:

  • Constantly tapped as a rising star, his appeal with the grassroots and his lack of problems with other members of parliament could allow him a good shot at the party nomination. A Brexiter, he can appeal to the leave vote but his less prominent role in the campaign could play for Remain. Cleverly’s epic takedown over Corbyn’s comments on unlocking black potential showed his stripes proving meritocracy, a good part of the Tory mantra.
  • Cleverly is charismatic, the antithesis to May’s rigidity. His witty social media proves that he is in touch with the grassroots and he speaks well when interviewed. Most people want politicians to be more open and transparent, so Cleverly’s way with people is definitely a plus. He also disproves the idea that only Labour is the vehicle for BMEs- a strong MP who doesn’t let race define him and proved his country in the military.


  • Cleverly does not have the experience that others do. He is not a member of the Cabinet and has not held a prominent politician apart from Deputy Leader, which is not massively influential. As a green MP, only in for three years, he has not got the history behind him which he needs. This lack of history and lack of connections mean that he may not be able to go too far in a leadership election when the MPs are casting the ballot.
  • Though he is a credible leader, he has no hugely distinguishing traits. Johnson and Gove are long time members who have strong support and strong policy positions to their name, whereas Cleverly does not have anything to his name. Though he rebelled on Brexit, he still has many Tory traits and that might serve him as a disadvantage when it comes to anti-establishment views.

Will He Run? He said himself that he would love to be leader one day, so that’s almost definite. Like Patel though, he has plenty of time so it could be another ten years or so.


Other Contenders:

  • Liz Truss- Popular with the free market crowd, they were upset when she went for remain. Too green, may be a good chancellor next to Javid or Gove.
  • Jeremy Hunt- A long time Tory with a plethora of roles, Hunt is often mentioned. Still, he’s incredibly unpopular with the left, with the healthcare professionals and with Tories.
  • Tom Tugendhat- A former army officer, Tugendhat is young blood like Cleverly. He does not have strong name recognition though and is still green.
  • David Davis- A stalwart party member who shocked many by stepping down as Brexit secretary, Davis remains popular for his steady leadership and good nature. Still, it looks like his time has finished.
  • Penny Mordaunt- Strong willed and likeable, she’s doing a great job in International Development. Popular amongst grassroots, she still needs to spread her wings a little to appeal to MPs.

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