Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the man who was drenched in sleazy scandals but somehow never drowned in them, is finally out at Number 10. What felled him was one final hurrah of sleaze: a scandal in which Johnson put a serial sexual harasser in a key governmental position and then had to feign surprise when he did some more sexual harassing. This, on top of a scandal around the refurbishment of his government-owned home, on top of a scandal around his willful breaking of his own COVID-19 restrictions, on top of the mishandled Northern Irish border crisis, on top of the catastrophe that has so far been Brexit, on top of the looming threat of Scottish separatism and Northern Irish separatism that he has been helpless to do anything about, has really hit home that Boris Johnson never really cared that much for the ministerial parts of being prime minister.
A quick explainer to what happens next: the Conservatives won the last election and still have a majority of seats in the House of Commons. By tradition, the party with the majority of seats gets first crack at forming a government when the old government is out. The Conservatives – also called the Tories – will now hold an election to replace Johnson as party leader, and the new person will go to the Queen and do a little pomp and circumstance before coming back to the House of Commons and saying, “Hi, I’m the new prime minister,” and then they’re the new prime minister. I’ve maybe paraphrased some elements but the gist is there.
Anyway, the question before us is – as it always is – who the fuck are all these fucks? We’ll start with the two declared candidates and then move on to the people who haven’t declared but are almost certainly going to. Then, you know, the wild cards.
The Ones We Know Are Running
Born in Greater London and raised in Greater London and currently representing a constituency maybe a half-hour’s drive from Greater London, Suella Braverman is an attorney so good at attorneying that she’s currently the Attorney General for England and Wales.
She’s also extremely conservative. The daughter of Indian emigres (by way of a couple other ex-colonies), Braverman calls herself a “child of the British Empire” which she says was “a force for good” in the world. This is not really the way most people see the British Empire these days; even the most neutral assessment of ‘every European power had an empire and Britain just happened to be very good at it‘ still holds a certain contempt for the way Britain’s imperial ambitions created a ton of modern chaos.
The U.K. today is a multicultural place with strong ties to its former colonies, nearly all of which have a commitment to human rights enshrined as much by British imperial ideals as they were by the ideals of the anti-colonialists who eventually splintered the empire. A sizable minority of Britons still view the empire as a force for good, so Braverman isn’t in poor company.
But combine this with her other views, including her fierce support for Brexit as a way to combat “cultural marxism,” and you get the picture that Braverman is somewhat to the right even of the Tory establishment.
I’m glad it didn’t take long to get to a good, silly British name. Tom Georg John Tugendhat (his name is my name, too) is a Cambridge-educated veteran and a relative political novice, having served in Parliament for a scant seven years. Tugendhat chairs the foreign affairs committee but has never held a ministerial position, so he’s something of a dark horse. There’s no way to assess how good he would be at actually running the government and there’s also not a ton to say about his politics. He’s a Conservative veteran who serves on the foreign affairs committee, so you can sum up his views with “I don’t want to go to war but I do think we should respond militarily to even the slightest provocation, especially if China is involved.”
Of Course They’re Running
When Sajid Javid, the health secretary under Johnson, resigned, it was the signal that Johnson’s government was collapsing. Javid had previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer and a stalwart Johnson ally, although he’d also briefly been a stalwart Theresa May ally and was put in government by David Cameron way back in 2014 – all of which is to say that Javid has been around the block a few times and knows, by this point, what it looks like when a prime minister’s time is over.
Back in 2019, Javid ran against Johnson in the 2019 leadership race. He lost, coming in fourth behind Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, and Johnson. Fourth is a decent spot to have been in. Chancellor of the Exchequer is a fairly important role – as is health secretary during the COVID-19 pandemic – and Javid has the chops and political power to win the race.
But who is he?
Well, he opposed Brexit although he also possibly supported Brexit. He admires Ayn Rand and has a close relationship with the American Enterprise Institute, which is currently arguing that the January 6 committee is a farce that won’t give proper weight to the views of pro-Trump members of Congress and their views that the FBI staged the riot to… make Trump look bad?
After Sajid Javid resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer back in 2020 (he briefly became a nothing before being appointed health secretary), Rishi Sunak took over. Sunak has the unique distinction of being the first Chancellor to have been sanctioned for breaking the law, so that’s fun!
Sunak’s resignation letter is basically an outline of how he would govern better than Boris Johnson and might as well be a campaign announcement. And, to be fair, he probably would govern better, but it’s hard to know. Sunak has been seen as the least-independent Chancellor in modern Britain, too closely tied to Johnson to act independently. In fact, the Johnson’s insistence that he have authority over the treasury was what prompted Javid to quit back in 2020.
As a result of all that, it’s hard to say what Sunak would do differently politically, but it’s true that Sunak – unlike Johnson – has been able to assert some moral high ground now and then. When a controversy bubbled around his wife’s tax-exempt status, the pair announced they would shed the status to maintain propriety, even though it was not unlawful. And Sunak made his resignation mostly about the perception that Johnson is mired in sleaze and that he doesn’t want to be part of that, suddenly, several years in and after backing Johnson in the no-confidence vote earlier this year.
He also, of course, wrote this: “In preparation for our proposed joint speech on the economy next week, it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different.” That’s not about Johnson’s personality at all, but about policy. What was different in Sunak’s approach compared to Johnson’s? We’ll have to wait and see what he thinks the future of the U.K. should be.
Mary Elizabeth “Liz” Truss has been around for a while. She’s an Oxford-educated political professional who quickly entered government after joining the House of Commons in 2010. She served under the three prime ministers since – Cameron, May, and Johnson – in all manner of portfolios: Childcare and Education; Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs; Justice; Treasury; Trade; Woman and Equalities; Foreign Affairs.
She’s a libertarian, a relatively new branch of politic in the U.K. but one familiar to Americans. Like Braverman, she’s a fan of the British Empire “warts and all” which is at least an acknowledgement of its many warts. In stereotypical British fashion, she thinks toddlers are ill-mannered and children learn too much about sexism and not enough about how to read. Oh, and “treaties” aren’t, like, real laws.
I don’t live in the U.K., so I don’t have a grasp on how many people there could name defense minister Ben Wallace. But he’s well-liked by his fellow MPs and by Conservative voters and The Guardian likes his odds above anyone else except Sunak and Penny Mordaunt (below). Wallace is a veteran of the Troubles, which eventually led to his appointment as under-secretary of state for Northern Ireland and later Secretary of State for Defense.
Wallace was one of the first high-profile British politicians to note that U.S. President Donald Trump probably didn’t care about Britain at all. After a half-century of close cooperation, Wallace warned that the U.K. might go it alone in future conflicts: “The assumptions of 2010 that we were always going to be part of a US coalition is really just not where we are going to be. We are very dependent on American air cover and American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. We need to diversify our assets.”
Wallace is a conservative guy in a Conservative party; he opposed same-sex marriage in 2013 (as did 133 other Conservatives; 126 backed the bill, allying with Labour and the Liberal Democrats to push it through the Conservative-controlled Parliament) and has been criticized for how he talks about other countries, including using mildly derogatory language.
Jeremy Hunt, seen above fast asleep, was narrowly defeated by Boris Johnson for the leadership back in 2019. He was the government minister for the Olympics back in 2012, he helmed health during a period where doctors decided they did not want Jeremy Hunt to helm health, and then replaced Boris Johnson as foreign secretary in 2018. When Johnson became prime minister, he offered to make Hunt defense secretary, but he decided that this was not a good idea. Three years later and Hunt’s decision seems to check out: he’s been frequently named as Johnson’s likely successor doesn’t have the baggage that the people who served alongside Johnson carry.
Hunt is an avid cyclist who is mostly concerned about mild vandalism and also ensuring efficient operation of the public health system, the NHS. That latter thing is what caused so much strife with doctors back in the mid 2010s, because Hunt was trying to reduce healthcare costs (although he also championed a boost in NHS spending) by, you know, reducing doctor pay. Significantly, Hunt broke from a long line of Conservative health leaders trying to mimic American-style health care buzzwords by saying that the NHS was fine and consumer choice in health care isn’t realistic.
Penny Mordaunt is a pro-Brexit member of the Johnson government who doesn’t actually seem to like Boris Johnson (and who supported Hunt back in 2019’s race). This makes her a uniquely situated candidate: in government, not necessarily supportive of the government, but supportive of the government’s general policies. That is probably exactly what Conservative MPs want.
Mordaunt was actually Wallace’s predecessor at defense – the first woman to hold the post – before resigning when Johnson took over in 2019. He later appointed her Minister of State for Trade Policy where she wrote a book and told Scotland that it sure sucks about their economy, huh?
Mordaunt also was a foreign policy advisor for both George W. Bush presidential bids and was a magician’s assistant for the president of the Magic Circle. I don’t know if that’s material to her bid or not but I kind of feel like it is.
Steve Baker is an extremely Euroskeptic politician who denies climate change and thinks Britain spent too much time saving lives during COVID-19 and not enough time putting orphans to work in the coal mines. This all sounds frankly quite moderate to Americans but I assure you it’s fairly right win in the United Kingdom.
Baker seems likely to run but unlikely to do well; he could, however, leverage his small base of support into a kingmaking role, which might give him outsized power.
The Right Honourable Jacob William Rees-Mogg MP
If you were to imagine the stuffiest British aristocratic politician stereotype you would still fall short of government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, nicknamed the Honourable Member for the 18th Century. Rees-Mogg is an old school conservative, by which I mean he’s like if the lesson Ebenezer Scrooge learned in A Christmas Carol is that there is a vast supply of free ghost labor that could be utilized to upkeep the country estate for virtually no cost.
No, really, Rees-Mogg criticized the far right Alternative for Germany for being too friendly to the idea of peaceful European integration and said that fewer people would use food banks if the government kept them a secret. His first tweet was in Latin.
Rees-Mogg is unlikely to run for the job himself – he is reportedly quite upset that Johnson is resigning – but you never know.
Home Secretary (in the U.S., mostly equivalent to the Secretary of Homeland Security) Priti Patel is probably going to run. She’s a hard-nose bully – no, literally, she settled an investigation against her for bullying – and a passionate defender of the power of the state against those meddling human rights lawyers.
Patel is a wild card not because it’s unclear if she’d run, but because the Conservatives use a multi-round system that could see Patel shore up support if another hard-line candidate falls early.
Nadhim Zahawi has been the Chancellor of the Exchequer since July 5, 2022. On July 7, 2022, he called for Boris Johnson’s resignation.
It’s been a busy few days.
Zahawi is the co-founder of YouGov and was the point-man for the Johnson government’s roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines. He hasn’t really been in government that long, although he’s been in Parliament since the 2010 election. He’s smart and, you know, fairly moderate: he’s called for local solutions to climate change, vocally opposed the Trump administration’s travel ban (which kept the Iraq-born Zahawi from entering the U.S.), but he is also a Brexiteer and there’s been criticism that the vaccine roll-out was botched.
Zahawi has not discussed a bid but has been planning it all year, allegedly, and he’s been called a “born organiser” dating all the way back to the time he set up a business selling Teletubbies merchandise in his youth.
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