Who Could Succeed Theresa May if She Is Ousted as Tory Leader?

  • With no obvious successor, the leadership field has widened
  • Contenders range from Johnson and Rudd to backbench unknowns

Theresa May’s days as Britain’s prime minister are numbered. Whether she lasts weeks, months or even years -- and all are possible -- few in her Conservative Party want her to lead them into the next election.

One of the things helping her to survive is the lack of a clear successor. Any leadership contest could take up to three months, unless Tory lawmakers can agree on a single figure. And there was little sign of consensus at the party’s annual conference in Manchester this month. So who are the runners and riders?

David Davis, 68: Mr. Brexit

David Davis

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Popular among grassroots members, the Brexit Secretary is also well-liked by lawmakers in Parliament and has friends in rival parties. After a year grappling with Britain’s EU divorce, he’s had plenty of public exposure, not all of it good. His failure so far to make sufficient progress in negotiations with his EU counterparts -- European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker questioned his "stability and accountability" -- has put his desired timeline for the talks in doubt. But domestically, the Brexit supporter has shown pragmatism in reaching out to Remain-supporting cabinet colleagues to forge a compromise. He’s twice stood for the leadership, most recently in 2005 when he made the final two, losing out to a fresh-faced David Cameron. At this week’s conference, it was left to May to bat away as a "joke" a report that he’d said he planned to retire in 2019 when Britain leaves the EU. After the premier revived his political career when she plucked him unexpectedly from the backbenches last summer, might it be third time lucky if she goes?

Boris Johnson, 53: The Repeat Offender

Boris Johnson

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Gaffe-prone Boris -- he’s one of the few politicians known by his first name -- has long been a popular figure in the party and has made no secret of his ambition to be prime minister one day. He looked a shoo-in after capturing the public mood by campaigning to leave the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum before being betrayed by his ally, Michael Gove. Named foreign secretary by May, he’s had little involvement in the Brexit talks and has made diplomatic errors, most recently at the Tory conference, when he made a flippant comment about dead bodies in Libya. But after exasperating Tory lawmakers by espousing a Brexit policy at odds with the agreed cabinet position, has his window of opportunity closed?

Amber Rudd, 54: Fast Riser

Amber Rudd

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Rudd made her mark in the Brexit campaign as an able performer and took part in an election debate this year just days after her father died. She has also enjoyed a high profile in the Home Office given the challenge of reducing immigration and a spate of recent terror attacks -- and survived an outcry over immigration plans that followed last year’s conference. Her rise has been meteoric -- she entered Parliament just seven years ago and now holds one of the four so-called great offices of state. Even so, the home secretary barely held on to her seat in Hastings, southeast England, in the June general election and this week was forced to deny she’d hired the Tory campaign guru Lynton Crosby to help her defend it. Having campaigned against Brexit -- though she now says the government must implement it -- is her biggest handicap with the Conservative Party.

Philip Hammond, 61: Safe Pair of Hands

Philip Hammond

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Known as "Spreadsheet Phil" (though apparently he’d like to be called “Fiscal Phil” instead), the Remain-supporting chancellor of the exchequer emerged strengthened from the general election, before which it was widely reported May was preparing to fire him. He’s since shown his strength by ensuring the government’s Brexit strategy includes a call for a transition period to smooth changes for business. Hammond has played down his political ambitions, saying his only focus is running the country’s finances, and his Remain credentials are unlikely to play well with the party faithful. But with all the other main contenders damaged, might the party opt for a safe pair of hands?

Jacob Rees-Mogg, 48: The Traditionalist

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A millionaire backbench lawmaker who quotes Latin and recently had his sixth child -- called Sixtus -- Rees-Mogg is on paper an unlikely candidate. A traditionalist who opposes gay marriage and abortion, he worked in the City of London before founding Somerset Capital Management. After a summer spent denying he’s a viable candidate for the leadership -- while refusing to rule himself out -- Rees-Mogg was the biggest draw at the party conference, attracting audiences that spilled out of meeting halls and even spawning his own movement: Moggmentum. But never having held even a junior ministerial post, is it too soon for him to bid for power?

Andrea Leadsom, 54: The Last Laugh?

Andrea Leadsom

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

May’s final challenger in last year’s leadership election, Leadsom effectively ended her chances after suggesting that having children made her a better choice for prime minister than the childless May. But May promptly put the Brexit supporter in the cabinet as environment secretary. And even after she was demoted to Leader of the House of Commons, Leadsom used that role to upstage May by visiting the site of the Grenfell Tower fire in June and taking questions from the public. That contrasted with May’s private visit in which she was shielded from the public eye. She was popular with the grassroots at the party conference this week, and asked by Business Insider whether she would bid for power she replied: “anything can happen.” So has Leadsom learnt from last year’s mistakes?

Ruth Davidson, 38: Scottish Tory

Ruth Davidson

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Davidson is warm, funny and irreverent, everything that in public, at least, May is not. Leader of the Scottish Conservatives since 2011, she’s overseen a revival of the party north of the border where the Tories saw their tally of seats rise to 13 in the general election from just one beforehand. The one Remainer whose draw at the party conference rivaled that of Johnson and Rees-Mogg, her biggest disadvantage is she’s not a Member of Parliament in Westminster, barring her from even entering a contest. A member of the Scottish Parliament, she’s said her priority is to defeat Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon in the next elections, due in 2021, and become First Minister. It may be a case of wrong time, wrong place for Davidson.

Other contenders who might fancy their chances:

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, 65, is a dark horse for the leadership and is regarded by Tory strategists as one of the steadiest media performers in the Cabinet. He’s regularly been deployed as the party’s attack dog, with both May and Cameron sending him out to defend the Tories at times of difficulty. Also from within the ranks of government, International Development Secretary Priti Patel, 45, has sought to make her mark and may fancy her chances. A supporter of Brexit, her conference speech spilled beyond her brief into trade, foreign affairs and an attack on Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Junior Justice Minister Dominic Raab, 43, has also been touted in the U.K. press as a contender, though the Brexit-backer has only been in government since 2015. Then there are the soldiers: two backbenchers who are regular subjects of media speculation are Tom Tugendhat, 44, a former Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and James Cleverley, 48, who served in the Army and Territorial Army. But neither has even junior ministerial experience, which would make them unlikely choices to jump straight into Brexit talks at the highest level.

— With assistance by Kitty Donaldson, Thomas Penny, and Tim Ross

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