Who's In The Running To Replace Boris Johnson As Prime Minister?

On July 7, British prime minister Boris Johnson quit — more or less. His spokesman told the BBC that the beleaguered PM, weighed down by scandals and jeered by his colleagues at Prime Minister's Questions the day before (on YouTube), would resign as leader of the Conservative Party but remain in office in a "caretaker" capacity. He has not specified what exactly that will look like, but presumably it means continuing existing policy as smoothly as possible, without strategic input or any presumption of a mandate. He will not stand for reelection in September, when the majority Conservative Party votes on his replacement.

BBC notes that many of Johnson's Conservative colleagues have joined the opposition in demanding that he resign, full stop, immediately. Johnson faced something of a mutiny in the hours leading up to his statement. Over 50 of his ministers had resigned, describing their party leader as dishonest and incompetent. 

Thursday morning found Johnson speaking to the press at the door of Number 10, Downing Street, blaming other people. "As we've seen at Westminster, the herd instinct is powerful — when the herd moves, it moves and, my friends, in politics no one is remotely indispensable" (via Reuters).

A legacy less epic than farcical

Boris Johnson is a famously literate man — he can quote Homer in Greek as a kind of party trick (also on YouTube) — but his legacy has been the stuff of farce, not epic. His premiership stood on shaky ground for months before his semi-resignation. Not all of it was his fault; the inflation and cost of living crisis that followed the COVID-19 pandemic hit every country, for one thing. But the sputtering, messy-haired Johnson seemed almost eager to erode his own legitimacy. This sometimes came in petty forms, like sending the government the bill for redecorating his flat (the gold-leaf wallpaper cost $1,000 per roll, as the Independent reported). Parliament spent months investigating accusations that Johnson and his staff had held mask-free office parties during the height of the pandemic, a time when ordinary citizens could not visit their dying relatives in the hospital.

Later, Johnson was accused of knowing that Conservative MP Chris Pincher had sexually assaulted staffers, and ignoring it (via Channel 4). Other scandals accrued; the Scottish National Party called for another independence referendum; and each time the PM responded with his signature mix of good humor and equivocation. Sometimes he was "misinformed"; sometimes it was a colleague's fault; but Boris, as ever, was blameless.

Decision of the 22

The question now is who will replace him. This question will not be decided by general election, as BBC explains. Rather, the Tories will make the decision, as they still hold the majority of seats in Parliament and thus the mandate for a government. 

First, the 1922 Committee will make decide the candidates. The U.K. Parliament's website explains that the 1922 Committee, or the 22, is a weekly meeting of all the Conservative Party backbenchers — MPs who do not hold a ministerial post. Starting in July, the 22 will decide on a field of possible replacements; then they will vote off the weakest candidate, one election at a time, until only two are left. At that time, probably September 2022, all members of the Conservative Party, not just members of Parliament, will vote to decide the PM. 

But who will those candidates be? A YouGov poll of U.K. Conservative voters, conducted on July 6 through 7, did not reveal any particular favorite. But three potential PMs cleared the 10% threshold: Ben Wallace at 13%, Penny Mordaunt at 12%, and Rishi Sunak at 10%.

Ben Wallace

Ben Wallace, MP has represented Wyre, in Lancashire, since 2005, and served as Secretary of State for Defence since 2019. He is 52 years old. A Scot, Wallace won a commission in the Scots Guards after graduating from Sandhurst, Britain's famous military academy, per his official biography. He served as a Conservative in the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999 before moving to England. He served as party whip in Westminster for years.

The Guardian notes that as of July 7, Wallace has not announced any intention to run; nevertheless, he remains "a bookmakers' favorite." Perhaps the secret to Wallace's popularity as a replacement for Johnson may lie in his distance from the drama. He has not quit his post nor sent any spicy letters to the press; in fact, on June 6, he tweeted his support for the Johnson government, saying "[Johnson] has my full confidence." A quiet, dependable officer may be particularly appealing after the chaotic, ex-journalist's term.

Penny Mordaunt

Penny Mordaunt, MP has served as the member for Portsmouth North since 2010, as her House of Commons biography attests. Since September 2021, she has also served as Minister of State at the Department for International Trade, a position informed by her past position as a governor of the World Bank, and made all the more important by the ongoing trade crisis in Northern Ireland. 

Mordaunt is 49 years old, a firm Brexiteer and a former Royal Navy reservist. Her style is pragmatic and no-nonsense, according to the Daily Mail; unlike Wallace, she has not hesitated to call Johnson's behavior in office "shameful." This may be the key to her popularity, although like her now-former boss, Mordaunt has a popular touch. Famously elegant and attractive, in 2014 she appeared on the reality TV show "Splash!", taking diving lessons from an Olympic champion before facing off against other celebrities.

Rishi Sunak

Third in the poll came Rishi Sunak, perhaps the most prominent of the potential candidates. Until his resignation on July 5, he served as Johnson's chancellor of the exchequer, a role similar to the U.S. secretary of the treasury. 

Sunak is the member for Richmond. A product of Oxford erudition and the start-up atmosphere of Stanford, he had a reputation as an economic whiz kid. Predictably, he favors market solutions, but his furlough scheme — paying workers up to 80% of the work hours they missed due to the pandemic — displeased Johnson, who preferred the shorter-term tactic of lowering taxes to control inflation (via BBC). Sunak's resignation was one of the most dramatic: he said Johnson was unprepared to take on the cost of living crisis, and unwilling to let the public know how hard the near future will be for them. 

Sunak is unique, not only for his youth (he's 42) but for his birth in India. Handsome and well-turned-out, like Mordaunt (the cut of his suits makes him look more than his five-foot-six, per The Article), Sunak has nevertheless seen his share of public scandal. His wife, described by The Guardian as "richer than the Queen," was revealed to have non-domicile tax status, despite living in England — a kind of barely-legal tax evasion. She also has close links to the ruling family of Qatar, a country that runs on de facto slavery.