Even before Boris Johnson delivered his ill-tempered exit speech, Conservative MPs’ focus had already switched to who might succeed him – and unlike in 2019, when he had been the prince across the water for months, this time there is no obvious successor.
Rishi Sunak, who walked out of the Treasury on Tuesday within minutes of Sajid Javid quitting, had been widely seen as the frontrunner until a series of missteps, including the botched spring statement.
He still performs strongly in polling – not least because he is better known than many of his potential rivals – but after the furore over his US green card, and with some Tories irritated by the rising tax burden on his watch, he now appears much less of a slam dunk.
That lack of an overwhelming favourite is part of the reason a whole slew of candidates, from Grant Shapps to Jake Berry, have not ruled out a tilt at the top job (and, incidentally, helped Johnson to hang on for longer).
Tory leadership races are nothing if not unpredictable: 2016’s saw Michael Gove knock Boris Johnson out of the running, and Andrea Leadsom fold after appearing to suggest that “as a mother” she had a stronger interest in the country’s future than childless Theresa May.
In 2019, frontrunner Johnson was anointed, but only after a lively race that featured Matt Hancock handing out merch branded “Let’s Move Forward”, and Rory Stewart quixotically filming himself nattering to strangers in a campaign he called #Rorywalks.
Already, this nascent race has thrown up surprises. Nadhim Zahawi had been seen as a strong contender before taking the job of chancellor on Tuesday, drawing up plans for a major economic speech next week, then publishing a letter less than 48 hours later urging Johnson to resign. As one senior backbencher put it: “He’s made himself look like a knob.”
Other MPs were warning against writing off Zahawi, the smooth-talking face of the vaccine programme, who already had a campaign plan in place with the aid of an ally of election strategist Lynton Crosby.
The foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who had been seen as a potential frontrunner, was caught out thousands of miles away at a G20 summit while her rivals were busily signing up supporters on Thursday (some have been doing so quietly for months, of course).
One senior Brexiter suggested some MPs who might have supported Truss were lining up instead for the ardently pro-Brexit attorney general, Suella Braverman. Her backers hope she can play the role meant for Leadsom in 2017 – sneaking through the MPs’ ballot to the final two, and then wooing the party’s rightwing grassroots members.
Others suggest the members, who enthusiastically backed Boris in 2019 after the painful Theresa May period of clunky campaigning and parliamentary stasis, may now swing back towards a safer pair of hands after three years of chaos.
Sunak, Javid or Jeremy Hunt could all fit that description – though it appeared telling that some key One Nation group Tories were throwing their weight behind relative wildcard Tom Tugendhat instead of waiting to hear Hunt’s pitch.
Both Javid’s and Hunt’s teams were saying on Thursday they would continue to take soundings before making a final decision about whether to go for it.
Javid’s supporters hope that he will be given the credit for precipitating Johnson’s departure by being the first cabinet minister to resign – though Sunak followed him minutes later, in a move both sides claim was not coordinated.
Team Hunt believe he could benefit from having been on the backbenches, rather than tainted by association with Johnson, whom polling shows to be deeply personally unpopular with the public. But after he was soundly beaten in the runoff last time, the One Nation caucus may decide to pin their hopes elsewhere.
Labour’s darkest fear is Penny Mordaunt, the amiable and forthright Brexiter who reportedly performs well in focus groups. They believe Sunak would struggle to stitch together the electoral coalition Johnson pulled off in 2019, between leave-voting ex-Labour seats and Tory heartlands.
Within just a few days, the likely shape of the race to be Britain’s next prime minister will be much clearer; but as the starting gun is fired, it looks wide open.
• This article was amended on 13 July 2022. An earlier version said that Zahawi “already had a campaign plan in place with the aid of Lynton Crosby’s consultancy”. That should have referred to “an ally of Lynton Crosby”.