(Written by Megan Specia)
Who will be the next prime minister of Britain if Theresa May steps down?
A surprise offer on Wednesday by May to step aside if her plan for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union were approved prompted political analysts to speculate about who might replace her.
While May did not specify a date for her departure — it would not come until after the May 22 deadline for withdrawal, known as Brexit — her Conservative colleagues would have to appoint a new leader to see the process through.
Candidates for party leadership have to be nominated by two other members of Parliament, though if there is only one candidate, he or she automatically becomes the new leader. If more than two candidates emerge, lawmakers vote among themselves to narrow the field, and then put two candidates to a vote by all Tories.
British bookmakers are already offering odds on some of the politicians they believe to be probable contenders for the job. The group highlights the deep divisions in May’s Conservative Party: They include hard-line Brexit supporters, vocal critics of the prime minister’s approach and supporters of May’s strategy.
Here are some potential successors who have been given the best odds at clinching the role.
Gove, 51, the environment secretary who formerly served as justice secretary and education secretary, is seen by some as a front-runner for the role, including some bookmakers who have put odds strongly in his favor.
He was a prominent pro-Brexit campaigner before the 2016 referendum and in the years since has largely backed the prime minister’s strategy. Some British news media outlets, including the Conservative weekly tabloid The Mail on Sunday, have speculated recently that he would be the likely “consensus choice” to replace May as a caretaker leader if she were ousted.
But amid the speculation, Gove reiterated his support for May this week, urging others in his party to support her deal.
“I think it’s not the time to change the captain of the ship,” he told reporters. “I think what we need to do is to chart the right course, and the prime minister has charted that right course by making sure that we have a deal which honours the referendum mandate.”
Gove has proved to be an unlikely ally of May’s ever since losing to her in his bid to succeed David Cameron on the heels of the referendum in 2016.
At that time, he offered himself up as a reluctant candidate for leadership, saying he knew his “limitations.”
“Whatever charisma is, I don’t have it,” Gove said at the time. “Whatever glamour may be, I don’t think anyone could ever associate me with it.”
Johnson, 54, the former foreign secretary and a vocal critic of the prime minister’s Brexit plans, said on Wednesday that he would now back May’s plan, which Parliament rejected twice but could put to a third vote Friday.
He gained notoriety as the outspoken and often-outrageous mayor of London from 2008 to 2016, before returning to Parliament. He was a figurehead in the campaign to leave the European Union and since the 2016 referendum has advocated a hard split with the bloc. This mindset has put him at odds with May, who has fought for relatively closer ties to Europe — and who has seen Johnson regularly undermine her efforts to negotiate a deal.
He has long been a polarizing figure within the party, which could hurt his chances in a bid for its leadership.
Johnson resigned as the foreign secretary in May’s Cabinet in 2018 in protest over her withdrawal strategy. That could help position him as a candidate of hard-line Brexit supporters, though there are other contenders for that mantle, including Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary.
But on Wednesday night, after May said she planned to step down if the deal were approved, he told The Telegraph: “I feel very, very sorry and though it fills me with pain, I’m going to have to support this thing.”
Hunt, 52, who replaced Johnson as foreign secretary, had served as the country’s health secretary for the previous six years. He voted for Britain to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
But in the years since, Hunt has become an outspoken supporter of the decision to leave. His view was hardened, he said, in part by the bloc’s negotiation tactics, which he called “arrogant” and “disappointing.”
Like Gove and others in the Cabinet, he has been a vocal supporter of May’s withdrawal deal.
Javid, 49, Britain’s home secretary, had been a successful banker before turning to politics. He is the son of parents who emigrated to Britain from Pakistan.
Like Hunt, he also once supported Britain remaining in the European Union, but he has since come to support the efforts to leave.
Javid has been positioning himself for a potential leadership role in recent months, making waves with the decision to strip the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, the teenager who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State group. But some, including fellow Tory lawmakers, criticized him for the move, calling it opportunistic.
Lidington, 62, who was a supporter of the campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union, is the prime minister’s de facto deputy and has been described by many as her natural caretaker successor. When speculation began about a possible coup within her Cabinet, some British tabloids pointed to Lidington as the presumed caretaker prime minister.
But Lidington, when asked last weekend about the supposed plot, expressed admiration for May and said he was working to rally support for her deal. His prospects of becoming a permanent successor are slim, however, because though widely respected, he is seen as a technocrat.
“One thing that working closely with the prime minister does is cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to want to do that task,” he told The Guardian.