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Mile End Institute

If the Conservatives change leader, what political project will emerge?

In our latest entry, the MEI's Deputy Director, Dr Karl Pike, explores the fallout from 'Partygate' and considers what the Conservative Party's next 'ideological project' might look like. 

Photo of Boris Johnson, looking frustrated with fist raised in air
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

With the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, facing calls to resign from opposition leaders, attention will no doubt move once again to who might replace him - if, and it's a big if, a leadership election is triggered. 

Since 'Partygate' became a news story that could no longer be dismissed by Downing Street, the names frequently mentioned have been the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. 

Truss is now the favourite according to bookmakers, and the Foreign Secretary remains popular in the 'cabinet rankings' of the website ConservativeHome, often considered a useful guide.

Sunak's 'week from hell' in the words of one journalist severely affected his chances - at least for the time being. The Chancellor's popularity was already falling, amid criticism that he is doing too little to tackle the cost of living crisis. The media coverage over recent weeks means the Chancellor may have few backers currently suggesting he's the obvious choice. 

The Conservative Party, should a leadership contest be triggered, will genuinely be at a crossroads. In the last ten years, two ideological projects have defined conservatism - austerity and Brexit. 

The first dominated British politics for years, and contributed to the destruction of Labour's reputation for economic competence - something hard won by Labour in the 1990s. Its appeal gradually weakened, and Theresa May - having suggested she may take a different approach - never fully committed to moving on. When Johnson went for a 'hard' Brexit, he opted for a Brexit he believed could unite the Conservative Party, and electorally the damaging effect on Labour was striking too. 

What next? That's where the choice of leader really matters. There are candidates who would take the Conservative Party in a (noticeably) different direction.

Photo of Tom Tugendhat speaking in the House of CommonsTom Tugendhat, currently Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is located within the (currently smaller) 'one nation' tradition of Conservative politicians - though there will be obvious questions about support within the parliamentary party. 

Liz Truss has made the 'opportunities' of Brexit a big part of her political strategy in her two most recent cabinet positions, though - perhaps in part because of her current role - the Foreign Secretary's approach to being a party leader and prime minister is a big unknown. 

Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, gave a statement to a Sunday newspaper last week about a period of 'non-dom' status prior to becoming an MP. Whether this will affect his chances in any future leadership race remains to be seen.

One thing Javid does have is a sense of the leader he would be, having taken part in the 2019 leadership contest. In the one major speech he delivered, Javid sought to focus on a Westminster 'elite', where 'insiders, never had to fight like the rest of us to get their foot in the door. Life dealt them a good hand, and they've played it well - and I can't blame them for that'. 

Photo of three candidates for next Conservative leader in the House of CommonsIn the circumstances the Conservative Party now finds itself in, Javid would likely attempt a similar message - with an even greater focus on public services in his current cabinet role. Javid was also, narrowly, the best performing Conservative among those Ipsos MORI asked about in their latest favourability tracker.

The Conservative Party's electoral coalition - partly the product, as many political scientists have shown, of contingent, longer-term changes in the electorate - is a famously interesting one. How to hold on to those 'Red Wall' wins?

Meanwhile, the challenges of actually governing - including the outcomes of Brexit - mean the Conservative Party (new leader or not) needs to do some serious thinking about what it is for - particularly on the economy and the cost of living. Labour doesn't seem inclined, as of now, to put Brexit and its economic impact on the table - wanting to get away from the continued legacy of 'Remain' and 'Leave'. 

Boris Johnson in front of a crowd holding up 'Get Brexit Done' bannersBut as the opposition begins to put some flesh on the bone in terms of its own economic narrative - for example, its suggestion of a windfall tax in helping to tackle the cost of living - the Conservatives are in danger of looking out of ideas.

The lesson of the last decade is that ideological projects - whether you agree with them or not - have shaped British politics. The question for any new leader, if a leadership contest does happen, is what the next project is.

Dr Karl Pike is Lecturer in British Politics and Public Policy in the School of Politics and International Relations at QMUL and the Deputy Director of the Mile End Institute. His most recent article, 'Myth and Meaning: Corbynism and the interpretation of political leadership', was published in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations earlier this month. 



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