Are We About To Get A New Female Prime Minister?

Gaby Hinsliff assesses the Prime suspects already eyeing power

Tory leaders

by Grazia |

Boris Johnson doesn't do anything by halves. He entered Downing Street on a landslide and left in an even bigger earthquake, with more than 50 members of his Government resigning in disgust after yet another sexual harassment scandal in his party.

But now the contest to replace him as Conservative leader (and therefore Prime Minister) is in full swing, the early signs are that many Tories are done with the drama. They’ve had enough of lockdown- busting parties, gold wallpaper, Cabinet chaos and seedy behaviour (the final straw came with allegations that Johnson’s deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, was a serial groper of young men - claims Pincher denies - whom Johnson had promoted despite repeated warnings). Now they want a fresh start, under someone who can get a grip.

There’s a phenomenon in corporate life dubbed the ‘glass cliff’, where companies engulfed in crisis pick a female CEO to signal a clean break from the past. The Tories have twice done something similar, handing Theresa May the thankless task of clearing up after the Brexit vote and picking Margaret Thatcher in 1975 after a messy defeat. So what are the chances of a third female leader?

Liz Truss, the gung-ho Foreign Secretary and Tory Instagram queen famous for posing, Thatcher-style, on top of a tank, was in Indonesia when Johnson quit, but swiftly hopped on a plane home. Energetic and ambitious, Truss’s take-no- prisoners approach to Brexit (and life in general) is popular with Leavers but horrifies some moderate Tories. But she’s already lined up what she calls her ‘squad’ of female backers in Parliament.

Another contender is Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, a no-nonsense naval reservist whose friends see her as the unity candidate: a Brexiteer, but capable of appealing to younger, more ‘woke’ voters the Tories usually struggle to reach. Mordaunt was an early champion of LGBT rights who, as Equalities Minister, unhesitatingly declared in Parliament that ‘trans men are men, trans women are women’ and spoke up against sexual harassment after MeToo. There’s been little love lost between her and Johnson, which might count in her favour now. Home Secretary Priti Patel is also reportedly considering her options, while Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she wants to run on a platform of tax cuts and ‘getting rid of all this woke rubbish’ – only to be mocked as a ‘deluded fantasist’ by her Labour Shadow, Emily Thornberry.

If it’s not Braverman or Patel, some wonder if Britain is nonetheless about to get its first ethnic minority PM in what would also be a distinctive break with the past. Ex-Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid led the ministerial walkout that effectively forced Johnson to quit, and are both expected to run (Sunak confirming he will today), alongside new Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, a self-made millionaire who came to Britain as a child refugee from Iraq. ‘Dishy’ Rishi’s chances were written off when he unexpectedly got a partygate fine – for turning up to a Cabinet meeting where Boris Johnson was given a surprise birthday cake – and then faced anger over his heiress wife’s tax arrangements. (Indian-born Akshata chose not to be domiciled in Britain for tax, meaning she didn’t pay taxes here on overseas earnings including from her family’s multimillion-pound business, although she’s since volunteered to do so.)

But Sunak’s been on a charm offensive, talking to Grazia last month about being a hands-on dad to his two little girls and the life lessons he learned from his parents. An early poll suggested he might be the Tory best placed to beat Labour’s Keir Starmer. For anyone hankering for more discipline after a messy few months, meanwhile, there’s always the two brisk ex-army officers in the race. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s profile has rocketed since the war in Ukraine, making him the early bookies’ favourite, while backbencher Tom Tugendhat –who has never been a minister – bills himself as the moderate ‘clean start’ untainted by the Johnson years and will be competing with ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt for Tory Remainers’ votes.

But could there be a wild card to end all wild cards? Having had to be virtually dragged from Number 10, Johnson delivered a resignation speech in which he didn’t entirely explicitly say he was resigning, triggering rumours that even now he might be fantasising about a comeback. As his ex-adviser Dominic Cummings tweeted, ‘I know that guy and I’m telling you – he doesn’t think it’s over, he’s thinking “there’s a war, weird shit happens in a war…”’ Crazy talk? Maybe, given it’s almost impossible to see how even he could bounce back now. But with Boris Johnson, perhaps it’s never really over till it’s over.

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