Boris Johnson’s resignation announcement fired the starting gun on the race to succeed him, with Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, emerging as an early front-runner in a crowded field.
Mr Wallace was being given odds as low as 11/4 with some bookmakers, despite uncertainty over whether he will run.
At least 15 possible candidates are weighing up their options, with a striking military bias among those considered most likely to enter the contest.
As well as Mr Wallace, a former Army captain, the likely contenders include Tom Tugendhat, a former Territorial Army intelligence officer who announced his leadership bid in The Telegraph on Thursday night; Tobias Ellwood, a former Royal Green Jacket; Penny Mordaunt, a Royal Navy reservist; and Steve Baker, a former RAF engineer.
It suggests that the war in Ukraine – and Britain’s response to it – could have a strong bearing on who the Conservative Party chooses as its next leader.
Two MPs who will not be running are Michael Gove, who was sacked as levelling up secretary on Wednesday, and Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, both of whom have ruled themselves out.
Many MPs believe that the sheer number of politicians assessing their chances is an indication that there is no stand-out choice to be the next leader, which could lead to a more drawn-out contest than they had hoped for.
The list could grow even longer: on Thursday night Kemi Badenoch, the former levelling up minister, was being urged by some supporters to put her name forward.
Those who are currently weighing up leadership bids fall into five distinct tribes. Below we assess their chances.
The Brexit torch carriers
Suella Braverman QC
The Attorney General became the first MP to formally declare a leadership run when she told ITV’s Robert Peston on Wednesday night that she would “put my name into the ring”. She said she would run on an agenda of tax cutting and getting rid of “all this woke rubbish”. A Brexit “Spartan” who held out for a hard Brexit, Mrs Braverman, 42, was chairman of the Eurosceptic European Research Group before entering government as a Brexit minister under Theresa May. Mr Johnson promoted the Cambridge-educated lawyer to her current post in 2020.
She has described herself as a “child of the British Empire” because her parents are from Mauritius and Kenya, adding that on the whole the British Empire was “a force for good”, earning a vitriolic response on Twitter, which she has described as “a sewer of Left-wing bile”. So far Sir Desmond Swayne, the former international development minister, and Jason McCartney, the Colne Valley MP, have publicly backed her.
On Thursday, a Twitter account for her campaign was launched bearing the slogan “hope, security and opportunity”.
The Home Secretary is one of the most committed Brexiteers in the Government, having been one of the leading lights in the Vote Leave campaign and former head of press for the Referendum Party. She has strong appeal with the party membership, as her Right-wing views – particularly on immigration (and on capital punishment, which she once supported) – are often more in tune with the membership than the party’s official position is.
In 2017 she was famously summoned back from Africa to be sacked by Theresa May as international development secretary because of unauthorised meetings with senior Israelis. A Johnson loyalist who has stayed in post, the 50-year-old was one of those who urged him to resign with dignity rather than be forced out.
An outsider with little ministerial experience, Mr Baker has hinted that he will run in order to give the Right of the party a broader choice of candidates. A former RAF engineer who rose to the rank of flight lieutenant, and a born-again Christian, Mr Baker, 51, switched to software engineering when he left the RAF and worked for Lehman Brothers before its collapse in 2008. After being elected to Parliament in 2010 he followed a similar path to Mrs Braverman, chairing the European Research Group before becoming a junior Brexit minister, memorably describing himself as “the hard man of Brexit”. Once Britain had left the EU, he seamlessly transitioned into a Covid-sceptic, as deputy chair of the anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group.
On Monday he will relaunch Conservative Way Forward, a Thatcherite campaign group established after she left office in 1991 which had Thatcher as its founding president, leading to speculation that it might be the moment of his campaign launch. He has even started selecting his first Cabinet, telling Piers Morgan he would choose the “impressive” Mr Wallace, his “long-standing ally” Ms Braverman and Rishi Sunak, a man of “unfulfilled potential”.
The man who helped bring down Boris Johnson by resigning as chancellor on Tuesday remains one of the favourites to succeed him despite the controversy earlier this year over his multi-millionaire wife’s non-dom tax status and his own curious decision to retain a US green card during much of his time at the Treasury. His biggest hurdle might be convincing fellow MPs that his reluctance to cut taxes makes him fit to run the country, but the 42-year-old is one of the few candidates with the requisite experience and skills to step straight into the top job.
A Hindu and a teetotaller, Mr Sunak comes from a family of high achievers: his brother Sanjay is a psychologist with five degrees and his sister Raakhi works at the Foreign Office in a senior UN liaison role. He came top in a snap Ipsos poll of who the public thought would be the best PM. His long-time friend Oliver Dowden, the former Tory Party chairman, could be the one to run his campaign and he is said to have taken meeting rooms at a London hotel to use as his campaign base.
The first of the Cabinet ministers to resign on Tuesday, Mr Javid, 52, is one of the most experienced candidates, having been chancellor and home secretary as well as running four other departments: health, culture, housing and business. Allies say that he is “taking out soundings” and is “more likely than not” to stand. His detractors argue that he has few major achievements to show for his time in government, but he has a compelling “backstory” as the Rochdale-born son of an immigrant bus driver who was told by his careers adviser to become a TV repairman but instead built a career in the city, becoming a board member of Deutsche Bank International. In October 2019 he used his only budget to prioritise public spending over tax cuts.
The former Northern Powerhouse minister is a Liverpudlian who represents Rossendale and Darwen and is likely to play up his appeal to voters in Red Wall seats. Mr Berry, 43, is chair of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, which campaigns for increased investment in the north of England. Last month he said it was right to “keep public finances in order” because there were “tough times ahead”, meaning that to keep inflation down tax cuts would have to wait. Despite long odds, he has hinted that he will stand in the contest. In May 2018, Mr Berry married his second wife Alice Robinson, who is a former parliamentary office manager for Mr Johnson.
The liberal centrists
A woman whose rankings in recent leadership polls far outstrip her public profile, the trade minister has consistently polled as one of the top choices among Tory Party members in recent weeks, despite her relative lack of top-level experience. Currently in her eighth ministerial role, she was international development secretary for two years and was made the first female defence secretary by Mrs May before Mr Johnson replaced her in his first Cabinet 85 days later. Named after the Royal Navy ship HMS Penelope, Ms Mordaunt, 49, is the daughter of a former paratrooper who worked as a magician’s assistant before entering politics and has been a Royal Navy reservist since 2013. In 2014 she was a contestant on the competitive diving TV show Splash!, donating her appearance fee to charity.
She has reportedly spent this week ringing round MPs to bolster support and believes she has as many as 60 backers. Laura Round, a former special adviser to Ms Mordaunt, is understood to be running her campaign, while Luke Graystone, a former adviser to Andrea Leadsom, is also involved.
Wading into the discussions around gender in 2021, she told the Commons that we would look back on the current trans debate in the same way that we now look back and “cringe” at the homophobia of the past.
She went on: “Trans men are men and trans women are women.”
Considered the fresher face of the soft right, she backed Jeremy Hunt in the last leadership election and spoke at his leadership launch.
The man who made it to the final two in the last leadership election before polling half as many votes from Tory members as Mr Johnson, Mr Hunt might appeal to MPs and Tory voters who yearn for a sensible, safe pair of hands after the chaos of recent months. A former foreign secretary, Mr Hunt, 55, is also the longest-serving health secretary in history and served as culture secretary during the 2012 Olympics.
Regarded as a metropolitan liberal, the self-made millionaire campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, which ruled him out of the running in 2019 and could still prove fatal to his chances. He has been sounding out Tory MPs for some time and has the support of Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip. In June he revealed that “every member” of his family had had cancer, including himself.
Sir Robert Buckland QC
The newly-appointed Welsh Secretary, who previously served as justice secretary and solicitor general, was unexpectedly sacked in September last year during a reshuffle by Mr Johnson. Insiders suggested at the time that Mr Johnson picked on Buckland as the least likely minister to cause trouble if he sacked him to make way for Mr Raab, who was being demoted from foreign secretary.
The 53-year-old was rapped on the knuckles by Number 10 just a week into his job as justice secretary when he said people arrested for serious crimes including fraud should be given anonymity to protect their reputations. Mr Buckland, from Llanelli, is a huge fan of The West Wing and has a cat called Mrs Landingham after the fictional president’s secretary.
The small-government tax-cutters
The Foreign Secretary cut short her visit to the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Indonesia on Thursday, coming back the day after she arrived so that she can get her leadership bid properly under way. Given that the meeting was seen as a chance to confront Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, over the invasion of Ukraine, her decision to put personal ambitions first will draw criticism from some circles, but Ms Truss, 46, has been gearing up for a leadership bid for months, using last autumn’s Tory Party conference to schmooze potential backers and then running “Fizz with Liz” events at 5 Hertford Street, a private members’ club.
A tax-cutting Tory who likes to play up comparisons to Mrs Thatcher, she prefers not to mention the fact that she voted Remain in the EU referendum. A government minister since 2012, Ms Truss is the longest continuously serving member of the Cabinet, having held four previous Cabinet posts. An evangelist for free trade, she has taken a tough stance on Ukraine, saying Russia must leave the entire country, including Crimea, before sanctions can be lifted. Her supporters include Alec Shelbrooke, a Blue Collar Conservative who represents Elmet and Rothwell in West Yorkshire.
In accepting the post of Chancellor on Tuesday, Mr Zahawi appeared to have enhanced his chances of becoming prime minister by burnishing his CV with one of the great offices of state, but by telling Mr Johnson to resign the very next day and publishing a letter calling for him to go, Mr Zahawi played a poor hand. His critics believe he was naive to accept the Treasury job in the first place, and should have resigned when he told Mr Johnson to quit, along with Michelle Donelan, who was education secretary for less than two days.
One of the richest MPs in Parliament, Iraqi-born Mr Zahawi, 55, whose parents fled Baghdad to escape persecution by Saddam Hussein, made millions when he co-founded the polling firm YouGov and then ploughed the money he made from it into property. He is reported to have hired Mark Fullbrook, the political strategist who ran Mr Johnson’s successful 2019 leadership campaign (and former business partner of Sir Lynton Crosby) to run his own campaign. He talked up the idea of tax cuts in the few hours before it became clear the PM was finished and his campaign will portray him as “Mr Low Tax, Mr Vax and Mr Delivery”, drawing on his status as Chancellor and his success as vaccines minister. A string of “Zahawi For Leader” Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages have been set up, and a website, ahead of a formal launch in the coming days.
One of Parliament’s more colourful characters, the Transport Secretary is a former Tory Party chairman who could prove a useful ally to one of the other contenders if his own bid fails. An ally said he was “taking soundings and making initial preparations, in case he decides to proceed”. His time as Transport Secretary has been dominated by air travel rules during Covid and by the recent train strikes. A former photocopier salesman, Mr Shapps, 53, founded his own publishing business and in 2012 it emerged he had used the names Michael Green, Corinne Stockheath and Sebastian Fox, and had also called himself Grant V Shapps despite not having a middle name.
He denied using pseudonyms after entering Parliament and also said he had never had a second job while he was an MP, only to later admit that he had done both, and saying he had “over-firmly denied” having a second job. He has twice cheated death, once in 1989 when he was left in a coma for a week after a car crash, and then in 1999 when he recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma after chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.
The military veterans
Despite the fact that he has not said whether he wants the job, BMr Wallace is the bookies’ favourite to become the next prime minister, having impressed the public with his tough talk on Ukraine and his demands for an increase in defence spending. Before entering politics Mr Wallace was a captain in the Scots Guards, and was mentioned in dispatches for commanding a patrol which captured an IRA cell as it tried to bomb British soldiers.
The 52-year-old, who started his political career as a member of the Scottish Parliament, is a long-time supporter of Mr Johnson whose first government job was as a bag carrier for Ken Clarke. He later served as a Northern Ireland minister and as security minister, and has won admirers among grassroots Tories for standing up for his own beliefs, such as defending fox hunting and voting against same-sex marriage. Until now, his long-term ambition, according to allies, had been to land the job of Nato secretary general, but he is likely to be tempted by an even bigger job with his stock riding so high.
The chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, who formally announced his leadership bid in The Telegraph, believes he can break the mould by stepping into Number 10 despite no ministerial experience. The 49-year-old, who holds dual British and French citizenship because he has a French mother, is the son of a High Court judge and served with the Intelligence Corps as a Territorial Army lieutenant colonel from 2003 to 2013. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and also worked as a civilian for the Foreign Office in Afghanistan, helping set up a government in Helmand province.
He described the fall of Kabul in 2021 as “the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez”. Damian Green, the former de facto deputy prime minister to MrsMay, has already backed Mr Tugendhat for prime minister, along with backbenchers Aaron Bell, John Stevenson and Robert Largan.
Damian Green, who is Conservative MP for Ashford, told the PA news agency: “I'm supporting Tom Tugendhat. We need a clean start, a fresh start, we need to get on with resetting the Conservative Party and resetting Government more widely in this country so that it gets back to being properly run, observing the conventions, supporting the institutions that we have in this country.”
Mr Tugendhat said on Thursday night that he has served his country before and wants to “answer the call” to be PM.
New York-born Mr Ellwood, 55, was educated in Germany and Vienna before attending Sandhurst and entering military service with the Royal Green Jackets. He reached the rank of captain by the time he left the Army, but remained a reservist and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. An MP since 2005, he served as a foreign office minister under David Cameron and Mrs May, and as veterans minister under Mrs May, but has never been a minister in Mr Johnson’s Government – having backed Matt Hancock and then Rory Stewart for leader in 2019 – and instead chairs the defence select committee.
He was hailed a hero in 2017 when he was one of the first on the scene after a terrorist attack on Parliament, administering CPR to PC Keith Palmer and trying to give him first aid before the officer died from his injuries. An outspoken critic of Mr Johnson, Mr Ellwood has long held ambitions of becoming prime minister.