In a closed-off meeting in the U.K. Parliament with members of her ruling Conservative Party on Wednesday evening, a beleaguered Theresa May told colleagues she would step down.
But like all things in British politics these days, it wasn’t that simple. May had already offered to resign before the next election anyway, and her latest offer came with one rather large condition: that lawmakers ratify her Brexit deal — the same deal that, in January, those very same lawmakers defeated by the biggest margin in the U.K.’s recorded parliamentary history.
With May offering to resign even if her deal succeeds, it’s hard to see her justifying remaining in her post now that it seems to have failed for good. “Once you’ve said you’re going, your authority tends to bleed away pretty quickly,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. And following the failure of May’s third attempt to get her deal through on Friday, pressure on her to resign even more quickly could boil over at any time.
Because the U.K. is a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, a new party leader could take over without having to hold a general election. But with a divided party and the Conservative minority government fraying at the seams, either May or a new leader may choose to hold one sooner rather than later. The contest to pick May’s successor will be whittled down to two candidates by Conservative lawmakers, but then ultimately go to party members for a vote.
With that in mind, here are some lawmakers from the Conservative Party who could replace Theresa May as U.K. Prime Minister.
Somehow, the former Foreign Secretary, who resigned from May’s cabinet last year over the Brexit deal before agreeing to back it after May offered to resign, is still the frontrunner to succeed the prime minister. A campaigner on the “Leave” side in the 2016 referendum (who famously wrote two op-ed columns, one for leave and one for remain, while deciding which side to support), Johnson is regarded by many in his own party as a political opportunist. “He is widely seen as dishonest, disloyal, and not a team player by his colleagues,” says Bale. “On the flip side, he has this celebrity status and might be able to appeal to people that haven’t traditionally voted Conservative”.
Johnson is also seen as the favorite of the Conservative Party membership, which ultimately has the final say between the final two candidates on the ballot, after lawmakers whittle down the field. “He is the darling of members. But he’s not the darling of MPs,” says Tony Travers, professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “That’s his weakness.” Johnson’s opponents in the party have said they would likely coalesce behind a “Stop Boris” candidate in order to prevent members from getting the chance to vote for him.
Gove, the current Environment Secretary, was another of the most prominent figures on the “leave” side of the 2016 referendum. He might just be that “Stop Boris” candidate – indeed, he has been before. After David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister in the wake of the referendum, he offered to run Johnson’s leadership campaign, but stood down at the last minute to run against him, splitting the pro-leave vote and opening the way for May to take the top job. “He must be the front runner,” says Travers. “He will probably do quite well among Brexit activists.” Gove is also a good parliamentary performer, an experienced minister and is widely seen as a “safe pair of hands.”
The current Foreign Secretary, Hunt has long been a loyal backer of May’s deal. But unlike Johnson and Gove, he campaigned for the remain side in the 2016 referendum. Nevertheless, like May herself, he had a change of heart after the referendum, arguing that the government must secure an “orderly” Brexit. “He has clearly been on maneuvers positioning himself as a sane, moderate, recognizable kind of Conservative politician,” says Travers. That could work for or against him. “He’s less inspiring, slightly more bland, but then again, seen as a safe pair of hands, which can be an advantage,” says Bale.
Now the Home Secretary, Javid is a relatively new face in government, but has been seen by colleagues as having leadership potential for some time. The fact he voted remain in the referendum could work against him, but like May and Hunt he has come around to the leave side. As Home Secretary he has taken a hard line on migration – a key issue in the referendum. He has, for example, revoked the citizenship of “ISIS bride” Shamima Begum, and cut his 2018 Christmas holiday short to return to the U.K. amid reports of migrants crossing the English Channel.
Raab, a former Brexit Secretary who also resigned from May’s government to vote against her deal, is another candidate who the Brexit-supporting wing of the Conservative Party sees as a viable replacement for May. Like Johnson, he originally criticized May’s deal but voted for it on Friday after she promised to resign. Unlike Johnson, he has a black belt in Karate. That tougher image was bolstered on Thursday, when Raab said the U.K. must be prepared to leave the E.U. without a deal on the April 12 deadline — positioning himself as perhaps the “no deal” candidate in the seemingly inevitable leadership race. “He’s quite radical,” says Travers. “But after all that’s happened, MPs might not want anything too radical, given all of the problems they’ve had.” In the end, the biggest factor working against him could be convincing enough colleagues to vote for him. “He’s not a people person,” says Bale.
One of the few women who stands a chance in the race, Leadsom, the current leader of the House of Commons, has been a longtime Brexit-supporter. She was the last candidate standing against Theresa May in the 2016 leadership race, but stood aside before it came to a vote. “She would certainly fight for territory with Boris in many ways,” says Travers. “She’s an ardent Brexiteer, she was tough on the issue, and she’s seen as more of an operator than Boris – an operator politically, rather than just in her own interests.”