The pack of senior Tories fighting to take over from Theresa May all stepped up their campaigns today after the Prime Minister’s Brexit withdrawal deal was rejected for a third time.
The vote increases the chances of another general election in the coming months, suggesting any new Conservative leader could have to fight Jeremy Corbyn for power soon after they are installed in the role.
If a snap election is called in the coming weeks, Mrs May could have to fight it herself.
But more likely is that Mrs May could stand down after agreeing a long negotiation extension with the EU, prompting a 12-week leadership election and potential a general election in around six months.
Mrs May only offered to quit if deal was passed, but even though she lost again her days are numbered and senior Tories are frantically jostling for position to replace her.
Prominent Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab fell in line to support the deal today, potentially denting their support among hardline leavers who opposed it.
Meanwhile, supporters of Michael Gove suggested he might already have as many as 50 MPs signed up to back him, while other contenders include Sajid Javid, Esther McVey and Jeremy Hunt.
Boris Johnson will now step up his bid to become PM after Theresa May’s latest defeat
Boris’s old foe Michael Gove (pictured today) is currently a popular favourite to stop him
Gove supporters say the Environment Secretary is someone with ‘impeccable Leave credentials’ who had also ‘bothered to reach out to Remainers’.
Last night Mr Johnson appeared to win the backing of Donald Trump. In a response to a question about the Tory leadership battle and Brexit, the President replied: ‘I like Boris Johnson a lot. He’s a friend of mine.’
According to William Hill, Mr Gove is the favourite to be next Tory leader at 5/2, followed by Mr Johnson (4/1), Jeremy Hunt (6/1), Mr Raab (8/1) and Sajid Javid (9/1).
Following today’s votes, the deputy chairman of the eurosceptic European Research Group of Tory Eurosceptics, Steve Baker, called on Mrs May to step down immediately.
Declaring that this should be ‘the final defeat’ for the PM’s deal, Mr Baker said: ‘I regret to say it is time for Theresa May to follow through on her words and make way so that a new leader can deliver a Withdrawal Agreement which will be passed by Parliament.’
Boris and Gove, pictured in 2016 during the Vote Leave campaign, fell out after the referendum when Gove announced he would stand for leader, severely denting Boris’s chances. Boris then decided not to run
So who are the candidates looking to replace May and what chance have they got?
Michael Gove – 5/2
Unlike Boris and Raab, Gove has kept on board with May’s deal and will therefore have greater appeal among his remainer colleagues. He was also seen as a ‘high priest of Brexiteers’, meaning he could appeal to Tories on both sides of the divide.
The drawback of this position is that hardline leavers and remainers may see him as part of opposing side. His other potential drawback is his perceived disloyalty after he knifed Boris Johnson in last leadership contest.
Mr Gove, 51, the adopted son of a Scottish fish merchant, is a cabinet heavyweight who’s served as Education Secretary and Justice Secretary.
His debating skills, intellect and wit put him well above many candidates and is popular with Tory members.
Boris Johnson – 4/1
The 54-year-old former Foreign Secretary is undoubtedly the best-known candidate outside of the Westminster bubble.
His scruffy style, regular TV appearances, chaotic private life and show-off Classics references make him well known to the electorate.
He has experience of power and winning elections, having been twice voted London mayor but was seen as a bumbling foreign secretary.
He is unpopular among many MPs, who may form a ‘Stop Boris’ campaign to prevent him getting to Number 10.
However, party grassroots members love him and he’s top of the ConservativeHome league table.
It has been claimed Home Secretary Sajid Javid (pictured in Downing Street) has floated the idea of a ‘dream ticket’ with him as Prime Minister and Mr Gove as Chancellor
Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab fell in line behind the deal today, denting his popularity among hardline Brexiteers
Sajid Javid – 9/1
The Home Secretary, 49, is a remainer who changed to a Brexiteer after the referendum.
He is the son of a bus driver who came to Britain from Pakistan with £1 in his pocket. Javid proved himself in business, becoming head of credit trading at Deutsche Bank.
He has experience of being Culture and Business secretary, a role in which he cracked down on union rights.
His strengths are seen as his extraordinary rags-to-riches back story, but is widely seen as a wooden and poor public speaker.
There were rumours earlier this week that he could form part of the ‘Stop Boris’ ticket, with Michael Gove potentially in support.
Dominic Raab – 8/1
The 46-year-old former Brexit Secretary and diehard Brexiteer is the son of a Czech-born Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in 1938 and died of cancer when Raab was 12.
He is relatively inexperienced, lasting only four months as Brexit Secretary. He voted against May in leadership confidence vote. Mr Raab is seen as a skilled debater who honed his skills as an adversarial lawyer with blue chip legal firm Linklaters.
His weekness is that he seen lacking people skills and thus is unlikely to beat a more experienced candidate.
Others in the running include Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey
How will the next leader be chosen?
- If Mrs May’s deal goes through, the UK is likely to leave the EU on May 22 and she would resign as Tory leader that day but stay on as interim PM while the contest to replace her begins.
- Any Tory MP can stand but they need two nominations from colleagues.
- A series of secret votes would be held every Tuesday and Thursday among the 314 members of the Conservative Parliamentary Party.
- The last-placed candidate is eliminated at every stage and once it is clear who the front-runners are the back-markers usually drop out and support someone else.
- After David Cameron stood down following the referendum in 2016 there were five candidates in the first round, who were whittled down to two: Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom.
- The final two candidates then move on to the second phase, when party members vote by postal ballot.
- Candidates will be expected to make speeches to members and tour the country to try to win support. This second phase is likely to last for up to a month.
- Only members who have been in the party for three months or more can vote in a leadership contest, so joining now would not entitle you to a say.
- Conservative sources say the whole process could be completed within a month to six weeks.
Jeremy Hunt – 6/1
The Foreign Secretary, 52, is an ex-Remainer who may arouse suspicion among the party’s Brexiteer members.
He is the eldest son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt and is married to a Chinese wife and he speaks Mandarin.
He has business experience and, before politics, he set up an educational publisher which was sold for £30million in 2017.
Mr Hunt has widespread cabinet experience and was the longest-serving health secretary in history.
Despite being one of the most experienced ministers in the field, unusually, he has made few political enemies and is therefore seen as someone who could unite the party after devisive battles over Brexit.
Andrea Leadsom – 20/1
The Leader of the Commons gained quite following when she stood for leader in 2016, but her bid fell apart when she made an ill-considered comment comparing her experience as a mother to the childless Mrs May.
Mrs Leadsom is a 55-year-old mother of three and a former city trader.
Since then however, she has blossomed as Leader of the Commons, winning plaudits for taking on Speaker John Bercow.
Popular among members and colleagues, she is now widely expected to have another tilt as leading the party.
Esther McVey – 50/1
The 51-year-old former Welfare Secretary is also an ardent Brexiteer.
She spent the first two years of her life in foster care and was a breakfast TV presenter before becoming a Tory MP on Merseyside.
Won plaudits with members for resigning from Cabinet over Brexit deal and is seen as tough, having braved out vicious targeting by Labour during her time as welfare minister.
Some in the party say she doesn’t have the intellectual fire power for top job and she is ranked 14th in ConservativeHome league table.
Andrea Leadsom is also expected to throw her name into the hat after her bid in 2016
What happens now that May’s deal has failed?
MPs will try to force a soft Brexit next week – and No 10 has threatened to call an election rather than be railroaded.
Technically Brexit day will be reset to April 12, but rebel MPs have already started the process to delay that by months or even years.
On Monday, MPs will have more ‘indicative votes’ to choose a Brexit alternative. Momentum is gaining for a majority to form behind agreeing a customs union with the EU and holding a second referendum.
Once MPs have a majority for a Brexit alternative, they will try to pass a law on Wednesday to force Theresa May to adopt their plan.
Ministers have threatened to call an election if MPs force them into a soft Brexit – and at this point May could call one.
The PM can call an election by getting a two thirds majority of MPs – which is unlikely to be difficult because Labour also want one.
A snap election would be incredibly messy and would likely deliver a similar division among the parties.
May could instead announce she is stepping down, agree a long delay to Brexit to hold an election and Tory leadership contest.
A delay to Brexit would also mean Britain must participate in EU elections at the end of May.