Boris Johnson’s bet may pay off. The former mayor of London led the campaign for Britain to exit the European Union and is now the favorite to replace David Cameron as prime minister.
But he’s no shoo-in for the position. Around half the parliamentary party supported Cameron and his bid for Britain to remain in the EU. They may not be ready to forgive Johnson for so passionately making the opposite case and there are doubts about just much he really wanted Britain to leave.
This is the same man who once said, “I am the only British politician who will admit to being pro-immigration.” The same man who once supported Turkish membership of the EU. The man who can always be counted on to argue for lower taxes, fewer regulations and less welfare. Those are not exactly the priorities of the traditionalist right wing he chose to affiliate himself with.
Johnson was something of a libertarian before he pretended to be a reactionary. The reactionary wing of the Conservative Party may remember. Especially now that the one thing that always trumped everything else to their minds — Europe — is no longer going to be an issue.
So if not Johnson, who?
These aren’t the best of times for Britain’s chancellor. Had the referendum produced a decision to remain, George Osborne would have looked like Cameron’s natural successor. The two moved the Conservative Party to the center of British politics together and won two general elections there.
Whereas Cameron bridged the divide between the Tory countryside and its centrist, pro-business wing in the cities, Osborne is the personification of the urban professional class that overwhelmingly voted on Thursday to stay in the European Union.
That segment of the party — indeed the country — is feeling pretty down right now. But Osborne can still call in favors; he could probably still rely on the support of many in the 2010 and 2015 intake. If Osborne stood for the leadership, he would stand a chance. He’s cunning enough not to if he knows there isn’t enough support.
Probably the Brexiters’ second choice after Johnson. Anne McElvoy has argued in The Observer that one of Theresa May’s advantages is her classlessness “at a time when the posh boy atmosphere has not helped some reputations” in the ruling party.
A product of mixed private and state schooling with a technocratic background as a consultant, she has done the slog of heading a local government education committee in south London on her way to political glory. The contrast with the gilded sorts who floated into plum seats through connections and a stint in the Conservative Research Department is self-evident.
The home secretary also appeals to rightwingers “who feel that the trend toward younger party leaders has landed them with a ruling class too close to metropolitan elites and not close enough to the hearts of minds of Conservatives tempted by UKIP,” according to McElvoy.
Her attempts to outflank Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party with a hardline immigration policy, including clamping down on how long foreign graduates can stay in the country, has not rubbed the more centrist wing of the party the right way.
But May has one less mark against her than Johnson. She stayed loyal and backed “remain”, despite her own misgivings about the EU. That could make her more of a unifier.
Stephen Crabb only rose to prominence in March, when he replaced the resigning work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, who joined the leave campaign.
Crabb comes from a working-class Welsh background and was first elected in 2005. He impressed his colleagues and was named secretary of state for Wales in 2014.
ITV reports that he’s been urged to stand for the leadership and maybe he will. But Crabb looks more like a future leader than someone to bring the Conservative Party together this year.
The energy secretary is another long shot. Amber Rudd was elected in 2010 and is very much a “Cameroon”. She campaigned strongly for staying in the EU and wouldn’t be acceptable to the leave side. But if no one else runs as Cameron’s heir, Rudd may be the Liz Kendall of this year’s Conservative Party leadership contest.