(Bloomberg Opinion) — The great question in British politics is no longer whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson will survive but who will succeed him. The Conservative Party is not without talent. Its problem is that the talent is badly distributed with talented people lacking jobs and talentless ones holding them. The fall of Johnson would be a welcome opportunity to put talent where it ought to be.
The two front runners are Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary. But there are a number of riders, too, including a number of Tories on the outs with Johnson.
Sunak’s CV replicates those of generations of Tory high-flyers: He was educated at a leading private school, Winchester, read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, got a job at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and then an MBA from Stanford Business School. He represents one of the safest seats in the country, Richmond, in Yorkshire, which he inherited from William Hague, who was Conservative Party leader from 1997 to 2001.
Beneath this familiar surface, however, is a new type of Tory. His parents were immigrants from East Africa who struggled to afford the Winchester fees (his father was a doctor and his mother a pharmacist). He is a practicing Hindu who took his parliamentary oath on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and puts Diwali candles outside the door of Number 11. He is also a member of the global plutocracy: Not only did he make a lot of money in his own right as an investment banker and hedge funder, but he also married the daughter of one of the richest men in India, N.R. Narayana Murthy, one of the founders of Infosys, the IT giant.
Sunak is the opposite of Johnson in his physical appearance: stick thin where the prime minister bulges all over the place, perfectly dressed in a neat suit and thin tie where Johnson is a sartorial disaster. He is the opposite in his approach to life — a dutiful striver where Johnson is an privileged rogue. The voters in his agricultural seat speak of him as the perfect constituency man, routinely turning up at agricultural events. He wrote a regular column in the local paper, the Darlington and Stockton Times, until his promotion up the ranks of government made it impossible. His colleagues through the years have praised his work-ethic and leadership abilities.
Sunak is much more of a conventional Thatcherite than Johnson. The chancellor believes in verities such as balancing the budget in normal times — he made an exception at the height of the Covid epidemic — and giving business its head whenever possible. He is a Brexiteer of conviction rather than convenience: He supported leaving the EU when he was a young man on the rise under David Cameron; he believes in his bones that the EU is an ossified institution and that Britain’s future lies in being closer to the dynamic economies of the emerging world. His position on “levelling up” has big implications. He believes that the Red Wall — the name for Labour’s electoral stronghold in the north of England — was broken not by “left behind” people who voted for the Conservatives in despair but by “strivers” who voted their material interests after they were finally freed by Brexit from their cultural loyalties to Labour.
Truss is a tightly-wound ball of ambition. She has survived numerous setbacks to come back ever stronger. In 2009, she withstood an attempt to deselect her from her constituency over an extramarital affair she had had with a Tory MP, Mark Field. She sang the praises of British cheese at a Conservative Party Conference, one of the most risible speeches ever delivered in the history of that political convention. She bombed as Justice Secretary in 2016-17.
Yet here she is occupying one of three great ministries of the government, the Foreign Office, and doing it pretty well. She’s added gravitas to her portfolio. She’s restored morale after Dominic Raab’s unfortunate time in the FCO culminated in the debacle in Afghanistan. She’s a constant whirr of motion (though her decision to fly to Australia for talks using a private government plane at a cost of £500,000 to the taxpayer will haunt her). And she was a success in her previous job as International Trade Secretary, bringing a mixture of energy, optimism and pizzazz to a job which had hitherto only been done badly.
Like Sunak, Truss is much more of a Thatcherite than Johnson. As Chief Secretary of the Treasury from 2017 to 2019, she saw first-hand how much waste there is at the heart of government. As an ideological warrior behind the scenes, she let it be known that she supported a very different approach to politics from Theresa May and, by implication, Boris Johnson: Cutting back the size of the state and letting London grow ever bigger by making it easier to build houses and start businesses in the south.
Truss has the zeal of a double convert. Her parents were both leftwing activists — her father was an academic mathematician and her mother a teacher — who took her on nuclear disarmament marches as a child. But at some point in her early adulthood she discovered both free-market thinking and a distaste for leftist earnestness. She used to opine that Tories had more fun than Labour types but is unlikely to repeat the claim in the wake of “Partygate.” She was also against Brexit before she was for it. This has often been the kiss of death in the post-Brexit party—a sign of ambition untethered to principle. But Truss has won hearts by her high-octane performance in the Development Department and by her repeated invocations of Thatcher.
Truss’s admiration for Thatcher is not just ideological. It is also performative. She does everything she can to invoke the baroness in both her physical appearance (the cut of her hair and the style of her clothes) and in her stagecraft (being photographed sitting in a tank). And she makes sure that these images get across to her chosen audience with a well-oiled Instagram account. Given the near religious awe that Tory Party members have for Mrs. T and the role of those members in choosing the next party leader, this tribute act could prove decisive.
Sunak and Truss have occupied so much of the limelight of late that they have obscured another leading contender to succeed Johnson: Jeremy Hunt. Hunt came a distant second to Johnson in the leadership election in 2017. Johnson’s petty-minded decision to exclude him from the cabinet has had the paradoxical result of leaving Hunt with a clean pair of hands. He has spent the Johnson years running the Health Select Committee and issuing sensible reports on what has gone wrong — and right — with Britain’s response to Covid. I have no doubt that thousands of people who tragically succumbed to Covid would be alive today if Hunt rather than Johnson had won the leadership.
Hunt’s hallmarks are competence and thoroughness — not the sort of thing that excited members in the midst of the post-Brexit struggle but perhaps exactly the qualities that the country needs after the administrative mess of the past few years. He ran the National Health Service (NHS) for six years (2012-2018) — longer than any other health secretary — and, given the extraordinary pressures of the job, a testimony to his personal toughness as well as his administrative skill. His time in the NHS was not all plain sailing: He started off fighting a bitter war with junior doctors over pay. But he managed to right the ship and avoid the Scylla and Charybdis that routinely destroy health secretaries — either trying to reform everything or letting the bureaucracy run wild.
Hunt’s administrative experience at the Department of Health would obviously put him in a good position to supervise the running of the service after the pandemic and the introduction of far-reaching reforms of the social care system. But more immediately it would equip him to reform the operation the heart of government, 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, as well as the wider civil service machine.
The field of candidates who are currently maneuvering behind the scenes is much bigger than these three. The old saw that every politician, when they look in the mirror, sees a potential leader, remains true. Standing for the top office is also a good way of moving up the political ladder— getting a seat in cabinet if you’re outside it, or a promotion if you’re in it.
The list of serious candidates for the top job within the Cabinet is a long one, chief among them are Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Health who, as the son of an immigrant bus driver, embodies the party’s claim to be the party of aspiration; and Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, who has an unrivalled reputation for getting things done.
It’s also worth pointing to two potential candidates from outside the Cabinet who, even if they are not likely to leap to the top job, might nevertheless leap into the Cabinet. For a leadership election is not just a chance to replace the leader. It is also a chance to reinvigorate the Cabinet which, in this particular case, stands in desperate need of reinvigoration.
Tom Tugendhat is the only candidate who has been honest enough to admit his interest in the job. The fact that he’s not made it into the Cabinet so far is more a mark against Johnson rather than Tugendhat. Tugendhat showed real star power in a speech that he gave during the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has also been doing sterling work as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee — a position that is filled by election among other MPs rather than by Downing Street patronage.
Tugendhat is one of about 50 MPs who have served either in the military or the reserves. He is a classic liberal multilateralist — a believer in the power of freedom reinforced by the military might of NATO and its allies, but also someone whose ideas…