You have to wonder how much longer Boris Johnson can cling on. Sooner or later, he has to run out of ministers, right? Actually, I’m reminded of Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam who, unwilling to wait for Labor members to elect his cabinet after victory in the 1972 election, appointed himself and deputy Lance Barnard to a two-man ministry. For 14 days, the pair of them ran Australia on their tod, holding 27 ministerial portfolios between them. I used to think it an admirable feat. Now I have visions of a deserted Downing Street, not even Dilyn or Larry still in post, only Boris and Nadine Dorries left round the cabinet table, he on a Zoom with Zelenskyy and she on Amazon trying to buy a copy of Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics ahead of the most unmissable budget speech ever delivered by a Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Anyway, assuming BoJo is on his way out, it’s worth making a point that risks being overlooked: it’s important to get rid of him, but it’s even more important to pick the right replacement. Boris is a self-starting chaos juggernaut but some of the alternatives touted so far might well be worse. Like Rishi Sunak. As I’ve argued before, he shouldn’t even be in the running. Whatever his qualities, however popular he might be with the Tory press, Sunak is George Osborne 2.0, a globo-liberal Thatcherite, all tax cuts and trips to Davos. That was acceptable in the Eighties, you could just about get away with it in the 2010s, but in 2022 the appetite for market metropolitanism doesn’t extend much beyond the readership of the FT.
There is another reason why Sunak can’t be Prime Minister and there’s no sense in pussyfooting around it: he’s loaded. Mega-loaded. So loaded his wife is a non-dom. It’s not class warfare to point this out and if the Tories think making Richie Rich their standard-bearer in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis is strategically wise, they are somehow even dumber than they look. While we’re at it, Liz Truss, although unburdened by a conspicuous wealth problem, shares many of Sunak’s ideological instincts and therefore his electoral drawbacks.
What about the other names kicked about? There’s Jeremy Hunt. I covered this three years ago: No. Tom Tugendhat? I like him. Unfortunately for him, that should tell you all you need to know about his chances of winning over the Tory membership. Penny Mordaunt? My right-wing mates seem keen on her — despite her woke leanings — and she would continue the Conservative tradition of giving the ladies a job Labour still doesn’t want them worrying their pretty little heads about.
The two most serious of the contenders mentioned so far are Ben Wallace and Sajid Javid. Which is awkward for me in that I once called for Wallace to resign, but there is no disputing that he has been consistently impressive, whether over the US-imposed retreat from Afghanistan or Russia’s efforts to extinguish Ukraine’s sovereignty and political independence. I still have misgivings about whether he is temperamentally suited to the job of PM — it involves a lot of glad fool-suffering and I’m not sure Wallace has the patience for that — but the man has more than earned his repeated top-rating from rank-and-file site ConservativeHome.
Of those touted, Javid is the strongest candidate on paper. His instincts are mainstream. His backstory would chime with many Britons. He could bring some welcome stability back to government. Could he overturn Labour’s poll lead and win the next election? Could he retain Red Wall seats, or even pick up more, while keeping the Lib Dems at bay along the Blue Wall? Could he rejuvenate the Tories for a fourth consecutive term in office and provide credible leadership at a time of ever-emerging challenges? All are unknowns.
The Tories have to be sure that whoever replaces Boris isn’t just less worse — or less hassle — but capable of undoing damage and taking on Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party. Those qualities are noticeably thin on the ground.
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