Kemi Badenoch supporters discuss plan to ‘delay leadership contest’

Kemi Badenoch is the choice of many on the Right-wing of the party to succeed Rishi Sunak if Labour win next week
Kemi Badenoch is the choice of many on the Right-wing of the party to succeed Rishi Sunak if Labour win next week - JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Supporters of Kemi Badenoch have hatched a plan to delay a Conservative leadership contest if the Tories lose the election because they believe it will give her the best chance of victory.

The Business Secretary is the choice of many on the Right-wing of the party to succeed Rishi Sunak if Labour win next week, but they are convinced a snap leadership election would hand the crown to Penny Mordaunt.

Tory candidates have been holding secret meetings on Zoom to discuss how to seize control of the levers of power within the Conservative Party machine so they can game the system in Mrs Badenoch’s favour.

They want to wait until as late as December to choose a new leader in order to build up Mrs Badenoch’s profile, gather intelligence on members’ opinions and install her allies in key party roles.

There are concerns, though, that such a delay would give Sir Keir Starmer “a six-month free run” without proper scrutiny as either a defeated Mr Sunak or an interim leader held the fort.

It would also leave the Conservatives without a permanent leader at their annual conference in the autumn, meaning the conference could be a flop both financially and in terms of precious media coverage.

With every opinion poll predicting a landslide victory for Labour next week, the thoughts of many senior Tories have already turned to the huge rebuilding job the Conservative Party will need if the polls are right.

Much will depend on who keeps their seats: a recent poll for the Telegraph predicted that Rishi Sunak could lose his seat, which would leave the party having to find an interim leader while it decided how and when to choose a permanent replacement.

Mrs Badenoch, like Ms Mordaunt, the Leader of the Commons, and Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, need to worry about winning their seats before they can think in earnest about possible leadership runs. Ms Mordaunt, in particular, would be vulnerable in a Labour landslide.

Ms Mordaunt did her leadership credentials no harm by taking part in the seven-way election debates on television in recent weeks, and Mrs Badenoch has tried to top up her profile with newspaper interviews. Her team also appears to have tried to soften her image by making sure she is photographed without her glasses.

Their supporters, and the different factions of the party they come from, are fully engaged in the question of leadership, and are already preparing how they will shift the pieces around the chess board to outwit their opponents.

Last weekend a Zoom meeting attended by a number of candidates and party figures argued for a delay in any leadership contest to ensure the party does not rush into such a vital decision, though it soon became clear, according to one source, that Mrs Badenoch was at the centre of that plan.

“There was a really big push on the idea of going long, which meant December,” the source said. “The people arguing for it said it would give people time to get settled in after the election, but it quickly became obvious that ‘people’ meant Kemi.”

“Allowing a longer process would allow time for Kemi’s people to be put in place in Conservative head office, and for her to be given a prominent shadow Cabinet role and build up her public profile,” the source added.

If Mrs Badenoch’s allies manage to land influential positions in Tory HQ they would be privy to membership lists and all-important feedback from local associations and surveys that would enable them to tailor any leadership campaign to say what the members want to hear.

Those who know Mrs Badenoch best insist she would “roll her eyes” at the suggestion that people might be obsessing about the details of a possible leadership election and that if Mr Sunak did stand down she would be “indifferent” to how the process was carried out.

Another party source said: “Penny is the front runner and if she keeps her seat she might be difficult to beat. She is popular with the membership and there are already signs that she is repositioning herself to be more palatable to the Right. A quick leadership contest would favour her, and her supporters will argue that the party needs to pick itself up off the canvas and get punching again as quickly as possible.”

Before any leadership contest can take place the party must choose a new chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, as the incumbent, Sir Graham Brady, has stood down as an MP. The 1922 Committee is in charge of leadership elections, and it is unlikely to choose a new chairman before Parliament is reconvened, which may be in July, though it will be up to the new prime minister to decide the dates.

The 1922 will then decide how long the contest will last, and could even decide to change the rules governing how the contest is run. There have been discussions about whether the party could revert to its old system of choosing a leader purely on the votes of MPs, rather than giving members the final say once there are only two candidates left in the race.

Membership will ‘get it wrong’

Some MPs believe the membership will “get it wrong”, citing the fact that the last leader chosen by the membership was Liz Truss. Others say that ignoring the wishes of the membership would be disastrous and people would leave in droves.

Mr Sunak could decide to stand down immediately, which would mean either he stayed leader until his replacement was chosen, or if he insists on quitting straight away an interim would be required to do the job. Names in the frame for temporary leadership include Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister, James Cleverly, the Home Secretary, and Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, although the latter would be unable to take on Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions because he sits in the House of Lords.

There is another unknown factor in the leadership question: Nigel Farage.

If Mr Farage is elected as an MP, if he has several other Reform UK MPs alongside him, and if the Tories are reduced to fewer than 100 MPs, a new Tory leader might need to establish a good working relationship with Mr Farage in order to concentrate their energies on fighting Labour rather than fighting each other.

Mrs Badenoch, with her more trenchant views on immigration, culture wars and net zero, might be better placed to work with Mr Farage than the centrist Ms Mordaunt.

A source close to Mrs Badenoch said: “Kemi is concentrating on securing re-election to her seat and on getting as many colleagues into Parliament as possible.”