BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Possible successors to Prime Minister Theresa May are using the Conservative Party’s annual conference this week to set out, with varying degrees of subtlety, their visions for Britain, turning the event into a parade of potential future leaders.
May has vowed to fight on as leader to the next election in 2022, but with Brexit dividing her party and exit negotiations in Brussels deadlocked, the conference has been dominated by the possibility her government may fall or party members oust her.
Below is a summary of interventions by key figures who could be in the frame to replace May:
The former foreign minister is May’s most outspoken critic over Brexit, using an interview on the eve of conference to label her exit plan “deranged” and grab the limelight from the prime minister. He resigned from May’s cabinet in July in protest at her handling of the exit negotiations.
Johnson, regarded by many eurosceptics as the face of the Brexit campaign, set out his pitch to the membership in a bombastic speech on Tuesday at a fringe event which was heavily oversubscribed and had members queuing for hours to get a seat.
He called on the party to return to its traditional values of low tax and strong policing, and not to try and ape the policies of the left-wing Labour Party, whose surprise resurgence deprived May of her parliamentary majority in a 2017 election.
Hunt, who replaced Johnson as foreign minister in July, used his speech on the main stage to urge the Conservative membership to set aside their differences over Brexit and unite against a common foe: the EU.
Hunt voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. He served six years as Britain’s health minister - a role which has made him unpopular with many voters who work in or rely on the state-run, financially stretched National Health Service.
Appealing to Conservatives among both the 48 percent of Britons who voted to remain in the EU and the 52 percent who voted to leave, Hunt adopted an uncharacteristically strident tone at the conference, warning Brussels that “if you put a country like Britain in a corner, we don’t crumble. We fight”.
But, while a comparison between the EU and the Soviet Union went down well with delegates, it attracted anger from some inside the EU and was disowned by May.
JACOB REES-MOGG, 49
A flamboyant millionaire who cultivates the image of an English gentleman from another century, Rees-Mogg has developed a cult following among those who want a more radical departure from the EU than May is proposing.
He used several appearances at fringe events to advocate a free trade deal based on the one agreed between the EU and Canada — something May says would create an unacceptable border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. If not Canada, Rees-Mogg wants to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms.
But does he want the top job? When one man shouted “sack the woman” at a mention of May, Rees-Mogg quipped “certainly not”. Asked if he would run for leader if May were toppled, Rees-Mogg said the party should back her.
“I know, I know,” he said when they booed his answer.
Britain’s Brexit negotiator is a new face at the top table of government, promoted when David Davis resigned in protest at May’s exit plan in July. He has taken over the exit negotiations, albeit in a more subordinate role to May than his predecessor.
Like Hunt, Raab used his conference speech to criticise the EU’s approach to negotiations, warning Brussels not to bully Britain. Raab, a lawyer by training, twinned the message with a well-received story about his Jewish father’s escape from Czechoslovakia after the Nazi invasion in 1938.
The interior minister had to compete with Johnson’s speech for the members’ attention on Tuesday, but used appearances at fringe events to set out a domestic policy agenda he thinks will help the Conservatives win the next election.
Housing, he said, is the biggest problem the party has to solve to appeal to voters under 40 who have been left with “faces pressed up against the estate agents’ windows” by soaring prices and a shortage of new homes.
Javid, a second-generation immigrant of Pakistani heritage, has served a number of cabinet roles and scores consistently well in polls of party members. A champion of free markets, he has talked about having a portrait of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher on his office wall.
Gove, one of the highest-profile Brexit campaigners during the referendum, has had to rebuild his cabinet career after falling early in the contest to replace former prime minister David Cameron.
High-energy, and seen as one of the most effective members of cabinet in bringing forward new policies, Gove used his appearances at this week’s conference to pledge loyalty to May and back her Brexit plan.
In doing so he rejected the rival proposals put forward by Johnson, with whom he teamed up during their Brexit campaign only to pull his support for Johnson’s 2016 leadership bid at the last moment and run himself.
Reporting by William James, Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Gareth Jones