David Davis is the preferred choice among Tory members to replace Theresa May as leader, but the race is wide open, according to the most comprehensive measure of party opinion since its disastrous election campaign.
The Brexit secretary was identified by just over a fifth of Conservative members asked to name their favoured successor to May, ahead of foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who still retains support among the rank and file. However, the level of support for both men was well below that of members who said they did not know or could not choose a successor, confirming the belief among MPs that a relatively unknown candidate could emerge over the next two years to seize the crown.
The revealing survey of more than 1,000 Tory members, shared exclusively with the Observer, follows weeks of infighting and briefings fuelled by uncertainty over May’s future. Tory MPs are now beginning what will be a febrile summer recess, with some fearing that a leadership contest could be triggered in the autumn.
The survey was carried out as part of the Party Members Project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It shows that 21% of members backed Davis, 17% backed Johnson and 26% did not know or opted not to choose any candidate. Party members are reluctant for May to stand down now – with 71% backing her to stay and 22% saying she should quit.
A distant third behind Davis and Johnson was backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit-supporting traditionalist whose occasional recourse to Latin and unapologetic Conservative messages is turning him into a cult figure. Rees-Mogg secured the backing of 6% of members. He was among more than 30 other names put forward by members as potential successors to May, an indication of the wide-open nature of the race to replace her.
Several MPs have told the Observer that they are desperate for a “Where have you been all my life?” candidate to re-energise the party, which was stunned by losing its majority at the last election. While most MPs are anxious to avoid a leadership contest until Britain’s Brexit negotiations have been completed, some believe that there is a danger of Davis supporters provoking a battle this autumn, around the time of the party’s conference. One senior MP said: “Everyone knows that we have a problem to address and most people hope it will be done in a timely and decent way.”
However, the jockeying for position has caused such anger that senior party figures are already certain they could quickly gain more than 100 signatures in support of a candidate to run against Davis and avoid a coronation.
The fieldwork for the survey was conducted by the pollster YouGov, with the results compiled by Tim Bale and Monica Poletti of Queen Mary University of London and Paul Webb of Sussex University. A total of 1,002 Tory members were surveyed between 21 June and 11 July. With no contest yet in place, members were asked to nominate their preferred candidate.
There was very low support for some of the established figures. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, who has become the standard bearer in cabinet for MPs desperate for a softer Brexit, had 5% support; Amber Rudd, the home secretary who could command the backing of pro-Remain MPs, was on 4%.
There was disappointment for Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader who was in the running to replace David Cameron before pulling out last summer: she received less than 1% support. Liam Fox, the international trade secretary and former leadership candidate, also had backing from less than 1% of the members surveyed.
The position of any future candidate’s position on Brexit is set to be crucial in a future contest. Conservative members are far more supportive of Brexit than the population at large, which could make it hard for any candidate seen as softening the government’s EU exit plans.
More than 80% of the members who backed Davis or Johnson said they voted Leave in the referendum, while Rees-Mogg secured 93% of his support from members who voted for Brexit.
About half of all Tory members (49%) are certain that the UK should leave the single market and another 20% lean that way. Only 10% are convinced that the UK should stay in the single market. There is slightly more support for staying in the customs union, with some 28% either wanting to see the country stay inside it or leaning towards that view.
Unlike national opinion polls that are adjusted to reflect the electorate as a whole, the survey of Tory members could not be altered in the same way because the Conservative party does not release details of its membership or how many members it has. However, it is the most comprehensive snapshot of Tory membership opinion taken since May became leader. Bale said: “A quarter of grassroots Tories don’t know who they want yet and around a third picked someone who – unless something incredibly dramatic happens – probably has no chance. So, for both Johnson and Davis, and just possibly for a very dark horse, too, there really is all to play for.”
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