In the wake of the so-called partygate scandal over illegal gatherings held at Downing Street in defiance of coronavirus lockdowns, several senior members of Johnson’s cabinet began quietly preparing for a future leadership contest, courting influential members of parliament and dining with donors who could fund their campaigns.
Johnson survived a vote of confidence on June 6, but more than 40% of Conservative lawmakers declared that they had lost confidence in his ability to govern. And, in the intervening month, those who most wanted to see his downfall have been jockeying for his job.
On Tuesday, two high profile lawmakers expected to throw their hats into the ring – Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak – resigned over the botched handling of the resignation of Johnson’s former deputy chief whip in a sexual misconduct scandal.
A dramatic cascade of nearly 60 resignations by lawmakers and government officials followed, ultimately forcing Johnson to begrudgingly announce on Thursday that he would step down.
Now, with the government in tatters, bookmakers and much of Britain are speculating about his likely successor. Any candidates who run for the leadership will go through rounds of voting by Conservative lawmakers until only two remain – at which point Conservative Party members nationwide will vote. The winner will be the new party leader – and prime minister.
Here’s a look at the potential contenders.
The former chancellor was Johnson’s presumed successor for several months after he won praise for overseeing Britain’s initial financial response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But Sunak’s stock sank earlier this year after revelations that his wife had non-domicile tax status in the UK and that he held a US green card while a minister.
His popularity has also taken a beating in recent weeks as Britain has suffered a cost-of-living crisis. Sunak has struggled to keep down spiraling inflation and has been criticized by opposition parties for what they call a slow and inadequate series of financial measures.
But he is still among the bookmakers’ odds-on favorites to take Johnson’s job.
“This week again, we have reason to question the truth and integrity of what we’ve all been told. At some point, we have to conclude that enough is enough,” the former health secretary told the House of Commons on Wednesday, referring to the appointment of and allegations linked to Pincher.
Although Javid’s resignation speech sounded very much like a pitch for prime minister, outlining how to reshape the party for future generations, it is not yet clear whether he will run.
The MP has twice run for party leadership in the past – in 2016, after the Brexit referendum, and in 2019, when Johnson was ultimately elected.
The foreign secretary, who has made her leadership ambitions known in recent years, could now be in pole position. Liz Truss voted Remain in 2016, but has since become one of the loudest Euroskeptic voices in the government, which many chalk up to her desire for the top job.
She has a formidable and dedicated team around her – some of whom previously worked in Number 10 – which has been producing slick videos and photos of her looking thoroughly statesmanlike. She has apparently attempted to channel former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, wearing a headscarf while driving a tank, and her role in fronting the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also heightened her public profile.
Truss is popular among Conservative members, who would pick the eventual winner of a contest. But Johnson’s downfall could simultaneously tarnish anyone in his cabinet, meaning Conservative voters could turn to a backbencher to take the mantle.
Last month, a source working in the Foreign Office told CNN that Truss had been in “endless meetings with MPs,” and that “it’s been insinuated that she’s seeing what her support base is, should the time come.” Truss’s office denied that any covert leadership bid was coming.
The trade minister is one of the bookmakers’ favorites to replace Johnson. A poll of party members published last weekend by website Conservative Home put her as the second favorite choice, behind the current defense secretary Ben Wallace.
Mordaunt first entered parliament in 2010 and later joined the cabinet under Theresa May, serving as international development and defense secretary.
After last month’s confidence vote, Penny Mordaunt declined to comment on whether she backed Johnson, raising eyebrows among Westminster observers when she said: “I didn’t choose this prime minister.”
A former British military officer who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat has been one of Johnson’s most robust critics and has made no secret of his desire to become prime minister.
Despite not having any cabinet or shadow cabinet experience, Tugendhat has impressed colleagues with his oratory skills and seriousness, most notably when he spoke about the fall of Afghanistan.
He entered parliament in 2010 after serving in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Less than two days after he was appointed to chancellor, replacing Sunak, Nadhim Zahawi publicly called on Johnson to resign. “Do the right thing and go now,” he said in a statement on Twitter accompanying a letter to the Prime Minister.
Until his promotion, Zahawi, who joined the cabinet less than a year ago, was considered an unlikely choice as the next prime minister. But his rise under Johnson has been rapid, making his mark with early success as vaccines minister amid the coronavirus pandemic and then as education secretary.
Despite voting to leave the European Union in 2016, Zahawi is widely admired among the moderates in the party. Crucially, as one Conservative source put it, “he’s not been in government long enough to have any obvious defects and, despite supporting Boris even after the confidence vote, is not too tainted by association.”
Zahawi was born in Iraq to Kurdish parents and came to the UK at 9 years old, when his family fled Saddam Hussein’s regime. He is believed to be one of the richest politicians in the House of Commons, and helped found the polling company YouGov.
A former health and foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt lost the 2019 leadership vote to Johnson. He has since styled himself as an antidote to Johnson and is without question the highest profile contender on the moderate, ex-Remain side of the party.
In a statement on Twitter ahead of the confidence vote in June, Hunt said: “Anyone who believes our country is stronger, fairer & more prosperous when led by Conservatives should reflect that the consequence of not changing will be to hand the country to others who do not share those values. Today’s decision is change or lose. I will be voting for change.”
Tellingly, Hunt’s statement focused mainly on the Conservatives’ chances of electoral success under Johnson, rather than his policies or the partygate scandal – a decision that could be read as a pitch to the Tory MPs and members who would decide a leadership election. However, he comes with baggage, and sources from the opposition Labour Party have told CNN they are already writing attack lines.
“It can’t be Jeremy. Labour can say he was running healthcare for six years and failed to prepare for a pandemic. They can say when he was culture secretary he chummed up to the Murdochs during the phone hacking scandal. He will get crushed,” a senior Conservative source told CNN.
Ben Wallace: Since he was appointed defense secretary in 2019, Ben Wallace has recently gained acclaim for his handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A former army captain, Wallace has managed to avoid scandal and topped the recent poll by Conservative Home of potential successors to Johnson.
Michael Gove: The minister in charge of Johnson’s flagship “Levelling Up” agenda aimed at transforming the UK’s forgotten communities, Michael Gove was sacked from the cabinet after urging Johnson to resign. Gove worked closely with Johnson on the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 before derailing his candidacy by running against him for party leader – a move that last month he called a “mistake.”
Steve Baker: The anti-green MP, who runs the European Research Group which is credited for ushering in a hard Brexit, has confirmed he is considering running for prime minister. Steve Baker told the Guardian that if he won, he would dismantle environmental policies and increase the country’s use and domestic production of gas.
Suella Braverman: The attorney general has signaled her intention to run in a future contest. In an interview with ITV, Suella Braverman called for Johnson to quit and said that she would join a leadership race to replace him, saying “it would be the greatest honor.”