Normally Tory MPs are entirely relaxed about an outgoing Prime Minister staying on during a leadership contest. Indeed they welcome what is often seen as a smooth transition. Now a lot of them are disturbed that Johnson is still in Number Ten and might be there for a couple of months. The context explains why. Johnson is going because an army of ministers and MPs said that he and his operation could not be trusted. Yet they are allowing a figure they do not trust to remain in office over a period in which quite a lot could happen, from developments in Ukraine to strikes in the UK. They fear what Johnson might do. More fundamentally this is a government in paralysis as the economic crisis deepens. No one knows who will be Prime Minister and Chancellor by the time of the Autumn Budget or what their economic policies will be. The same applies in all other departments. The new Levelling Up Secretary, Greg Clarke, had told his senior officials that he will only be in post for a few weeks.
The key meeting will be on Monday when the newly elected 1922 Committee meets to decide the form and timing of the leadership contest. The chair, Sir Graham Brady, has made clear they have no powers to remove Johnson immediately but they can determine the amount of time he has left as PM by deciding on the timetable for the contest. Those MPs keen to be rid of Johnson and the paralysis as soon as possible are calling for a short contest that is over “within weeks”. Others are less sure pointing out that the election of a new Prime Minister should not be rushed. My sense is that the first round where only MPs have the vote will be concluded speedily, by the start of the summer recess. Probably the final two candidates will be given until early September before the final vote of party members. A new Prime Minister and government would be in place for the return of parliament and the Conservative conference.
Most immediately, expect a large number of MPs to declare that they plan to stand. Already the number of declarations is in double figures. Farcically this is the weekend when MPs can fantasise that it might be them that can seize the crown. Around a third of the former cabinet are contemplating a bid and an array of backbenchers. Conservative leadership contests rarely go to plan, but I can report that quite a few MPs are saying “it’s time for a soldier”, referring to the likes of the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, or the backbencher, Tom Tugendhat. But there is little point speculating until the field is narrowed a bit after this coming weekend of indiscriminate and delusional displays of personal ambition.
Almost inevitably the pitch of all candidates will be towards a more rigid form of fiscal conservatism compared with Johnson’s ‘cakeism’ support for the hard Brexit and a battle over the Northern Ireland protocol, combined with a new focus on standards in public life. The membership is more or less the same as the one that elected Johnson in 2019. Although if they go for Wallace it would be quite a leap in some respects. Wallace was a remainer and has not become an evangelical convert like Liz Truss.
The challenge for whoever wins is to square the circle. A lot of Tory MPs want tax cuts and higher public spending on defence, levelling up, NHS and social care, and local transport provision. Johnson’s coalition of red wall former Labour voters and traditional Tories in the south was bound by Brexit, his personality and his ‘cakeist’ approach that drove Rishi Sunak to despair. How will Johnson’s successor keep that coalition intact, not least when by-elections suggest that it is already fraying? This political background becomes more complex given the current state of the economy. Treasury officials I speak to fear a recession will be difficult to avoid. Then there is the thorny issue of the fuel price cap rising again in the autumn. A fiscally conservative Chancellor will be reluctant to borrow more, but he or she will probably have to in order to further ameliorate the ‘cost of living crisis’.
There will be a new Prime Minister and government in place by September. Until then there is a vacuum unless the 1922 committee decide to shrink the timescale of the contest to a couple of weeks, not impossible but unlikely. Boris Johnson answering questions at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons next Wednesday will be as weird as last week when he spoke as if he had years more in power.
The race to succeed Boris Johnson is wide open, with candidates from across the party jockeying for position. Ahead of the election kicking off next week, WA has mapped out the process that will determine the next Prime Minister, and the key runners and riders looking to lead the next Government.
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Who replaces Boris Johnson?