Who will replace Sunak as Tory leader?

As surviving Conservative MPs sought to grasp the scale of the party’s worst-ever defeat on Friday, attention shifted to the question of how to rebuild the party — starting with its leadership.

In his final speech, Rishi Sunak took “responsibility for this loss”, and announced he would quit as Tory leader once formal arrangements were in place for selecting his successor.

The extent of losses on election day shook up the list of likely runners and riders — thinning a field of candidates who have been jostling for weeks, if not months, for position in the expected race.

Kemi Badenoch

Bookmakers have made the outgoing secretary for business and trade the early favourite to succeed Sunak. The 44-year-old, who was first elected as an MP in 2017, won her North West Essex constituency despite a 26 per cent drop in the Tory vote share. She holds positions popular with the party’s right on Brexit and gender issues, but is also seen as someone who could unite the flank with the centre of the party.

Tom Tugendhat

The centrist MP for Tonbridge could find favour if the party chooses to prioritise winning back former Tory seats lost to the Liberal Democrats. A former army reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tugendhat was most recently the security minister, and was previously the chair of the foreign affairs select committee. He ran for the leadership as a “One Nation” conservative following Boris Johnson’s resignation, but was eliminated early.

Outgoing Commons leader Penny Mordaunt, previously viewed as the frontrunner among the Tory grassroots, lost her Portsmouth North seat, while former defence secretary Grant Shapps, another figure expected to throw his hat into the ring, was also ousted by Labour in Welwyn Hatfield.

Jeremy Hunt, former chancellor, narrowly held his Godalming and Ash seat, but ruled himself out of the race on Saturday. He ran against Boris Johnson for the party’s leadership in 2019.

A critical question under discussion is who will act as interim leader between Sunak stepping down and a new leader being selected. Oliver Dowden, the outgoing deputy prime minister, has signalled to friends that he is not keen to take on the mantle, believing himself to be too closely associated with Sunak’s leadership.

A series of alternative names is circulating among Tories who were re-elected, including former cabinet ministers Mel Stride, Steve Barclay and David Davis.

The party board will meet on Monday to discuss next steps, while the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs is due to meet on Tuesday, when parliamentarians are sworn in to the Commons.

Suella Braverman

The former home secretary was sacked in November after provoking widespread anger for describing rough sleeping as a “lifestyle choice” and criticising the Met Police’s handling of pro-Palestinian protests. On the eve of the election, she launched a scathing attack on Sunak’s government, which she said had driven the party “off the side of the cliff”. She is likely to pitch herself as a firmly rightwing candidate and immigration hardliner who could make peace with Reform — and possibly even allow Nigel Farage to join the party.

Priti Patel

Another former home secretary, Patel has rejected the notion of allying with Farage but could rival Braverman in appealing to the party’s right. She kept her seat in Essex despite a squeeze from both the Labour party and Reform. Patel, first elected in 2010, was sacked from the cabinet by Theresa May in 2017 after holding unauthorised meetings with the Israeli government, but returned to the front bench under Johnson. She later became the architect of the government’s divisive policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, but quit after Truss became prime minister.

The committee will play a crucial role in setting the terms of the leadership contest, making the race for the 1922’s chair — which could be completed as soon as next week — a closely scrutinised fixture in its own right. Former culture secretary John Whittingdale, former deputy party chair Bernard Jenkin and veteran MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown are viewed as the frontrunners.

Some senior Tories are pushing for an extended contest, arguing it should be launched at the Conservative conference in October and conclude at the end of the year.

The received wisdom among Conservative MPs is that a longer race could favour less well-known candidates, such as Tom Tugendhat and Robert Jenrick, while a shorter contest could benefit higher-profile former cabinet ministers, who may include Priti Patel and James Cleverly.

In 2005, Michael Howard’s decision to stay on as leader after the party’s defeat in May until December — to facilitate a long contest — was seen as a crucial factor in underdog David Cameron beating Davis, the favourite, to succeed him.

“I’d like Sunak to do a Howard and stay on, but I don’t expect he will,” said one surviving MP, who argued for a lengthy race.

Robert Jenrick

A former housing secretary, Jenrick backed Remain in the 2016 referendum, but has since tacked to the right, particularly on immigration, after holing a ministerial brief on it. He quit Sunak’s government last year after complaining that the Rwanda policy was too timid. Jenrick is now the last Tory MP left in Nottinghamshire after holding on to his seat in Newark.

James Cleverly

An army reservist for more than 30 years, the pro-Brexit MP replaced Braverman at the home office, having previously served as foreign secretary. Cleverly was a close ally of Johnson, having worked with him at City Hall, and was appointed Tory party chair during his premiership. An affable figure, he is viewed as a potential unity candidate.

The make-up of the humbled parliamentary Tory party, which plunged to just 121 MPs — a dramatic fall from 365 in 2019 — will also have a big impact on the contest.

Ninety-five Tory MPs were re-elected, while 26 new arrivals won a seat for the first time — including Theresa May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy and Katie Lam, a former special adviser to Suella Braverman.

Overall gravity in the parliamentary party has shifted centre-wards following the defeat of many right-wing Red Wall MPs, and the exit of former allies of Boris Johnson, according to party officials’ assessment.

If the leadership contest follows usual rules, Tory MPs will have the power to choose the final two candidates on the ballot paper, with votes then cast by the party’s membership, which numbers about 175,000. While centrists may be well represented among the parliamentary party, the membership skews significantly more to the right.

Former chancellor Hunt, who beat some forecasts to cling on narrowly against a Lib Dem challenge in his Surrey seat, is expected to be influential in the competition, despite ruling himself out of the running on Saturday.

Jeremy Hunt

The outgoing chancellor has ruled himself out of the race, denying party moderates a potential high-profile candidate. He earned widespread plaudits for his steady hand at the Treasury. Hunt, a centrist, was runner-up to Johnson in the contest to replace May in 2019, and ran again in 2022 though his bid failed to gain traction. He held on to his seat in the wealthy Surrey commuter town of Godalming by just under 900 votes.

Victoria Atkins

A former barrister, Atkins was made health secretary in November after earlier stints at the Treasury and the justice department. She has been tipped as a potential standard bearer for the party’s moderates, a position that has been firmed up by the failure of Mourdant and Shapps to retain their seats. Oliver Dowden, former deputy prime minister, was reported to have backed Atkins in private, saying she was a “star” who could lead the party.

MPs and insiders from all wings of the party agreed that the spectre of Nigel Farage will loom large over the Tory leadership contest. One important dividing line between candidates will be whether they would accommodate him in the Conservative party.

One moderate Tory figure warned: “The leadership contest will be dominated by one question: how do you beat Reform? Psephologically there is no route back to power without reuniting the rightwing vote.”

The insider predicted that leadership candidates in Farage’s own image — “southern, posh, white men” — would have a harder time persuading the membership that they were the right choice to take on the charismatic Reform UK leader than female and non-white candidates.

A mood of weary resignation about the party’s fortunes and the debate that lies ahead has gripped Tory MPs.

One former Tory minister said: “We are about to descend into a big old row about ideology, but voters don’t care — they care about competence. We’ve lost because we were incompetent, we failed to deliver.”

Another former frontbencher singled out Braverman for specific criticism after she published an op-ed criticising the party on the eve of election day, adding: “These mad people who think it’s a good idea to go on the national stage and bang on are incredibly irritating.”

Shapps on Friday hit out at the Tory “soap opera” that had turned off voters, which he said had involved “increasingly indulgent” internal rivalries and divisions. He warned there was a danger the party could now “go off on some tangent, condemning ourselves to years of lacklustre opposition”.

In the ashes of the Conservatives’ defeat, anger welled up among ousted Tory MPs and activists who blamed party chiefs for their part in it.

Some fury was directed at Conservative campaign headquarters. “Candidates are disgusted by CCHQ, who pulled people from seats that could have been won” to campaign in other constituencies, said one senior party insider.

They cited the example of Hendon, which the Tories lost by only 15 votes. Activists were “told to stop campaigning there two weeks ago”, the person said.

Many candidates also privately grumbled about Sunak’s decision to call a snap election for July at a time when the party was 20 points behind Labour in the opinion polls, rather than waiting for a potentially more favourable wind to arrive.

Those surviving MPs looking ahead to the future said they expected “underdog” candidates to seize the initiative and announce their campaigns quickly — possibly even over the weekend — while predicting that more established figures might hold back.

Whoever succeeds Sunak as leader, the party’s path back to power is long and steep — and far from guaranteed. Former Tory leader William Hague issued a sober warning to colleagues on Friday: “Do not imagine that recovery is inevitable.”

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