The Prime Minister is lame. Weeks of avoidable blunders coupled with high-handedness and plain rudeness to his MPs have left him looking vulnerable. It is no longer impossible to imagine him being run over by a bus (whether or not sporting a questionable Brexit claim). So it is time to consider the betting implications.
There are two main betting markets relevant to Boris Johnson’s replacement: next leader of the Conservative party and next Prime Minister. Obviously, these are not the same thing. Less obviously, the markets may settle in different ways and different considerations apply to each market. They should not be treated as interchangeable.
There is no such thing as a temporary Prime Minister. The next Prime Minister is the next Prime Minister. However, most markets for next leader of the Conservative party will only settle on the appointment of the next permanent leader.
It is tautological to say that Boris Johnson will be replaced as next Prime Minister in government. He may, however, be replaced as leader of the Conservative party in opposition. Replacements in opposition look different from in government. Oppositions are more willing to consider inexperienced leaders: Tony Blair, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn were all without any Cabinet experience when appointed leader of the Opposition.
The single most important question when considering the market for next Prime Minister or next leader of the Conservative party is when — when will there be a vacancy?
There are effectively four permutations we need to consider: Boris Johnson loses power at the next election; he is removed in the near term (the next 12 months or so); he is removed shortly before the next election; or he wins the next election. Let’s take these in order.
So let’s start with the idea of Boris Johnson leaving office before the next election. That must now be rather more likely than not. There is nothing in his past that suggests that he can reinvent himself and, as shown by the way that the media turned his Peppa Pig speech to the CBI into sliced bacon, his chaotic bonhomie has worn very thin with many. His personal approval ratings have been in steady and serious decline since May, and the trend is showing no signs of tailing off yet. Critically, as Theo Bartram astutely noted, it is the attributes of Boris Johnson’s character that previously were seen as a strength that are now weakening him. Character is not something that will change.
Boris Johnson has few loyal outriders who he has not bought through preferment. Few Conservative MPs have a bond of loyalty with Boris Johnson (a relationship that seems entirely understood and reciprocated by him). Unlike Theresa May or John Major, he does not occupy a hinge point in party thinking, so unlike them he is not indispensable for want of an alternative acceptable to all. If Labour can string together a couple of months of opinion poll leads in, say, the 7%+ range, Conservative MPs have no reason to stick with him. In those circumstances, they won’t.
That’s quite a big if. Nevertheless, Labour may well generate such leads almost by default. Inflation is going to hit living standards. The rise in national insurance from April next year will do the same. Even without avoidable pratfalls, the Conservatives are likely to lose some support from the disappointed. And coming up, the Prime Minister’s own ethics are likely to get renewed scrutiny. Sir Keir Starmer has recently shown an ability to score an open goal when presented with the opportunity to tap in from a macelength’s distance. Things look quite likely to get quite torrid quite quickly.
Taking all of this into account, I’d make it about a 60% chance that he will be ousted before the next election. Right now Betfair makes it about a 20% chance that he’ll be replaced by 1 July 2022, and that’s not ridiculous, though I make that a bit high, given that for reasons of logistics his actual departure might be in July or August even if the fatal blow is struck earlier. Let’s say 15%.
Boris Johnson only stops being Prime Minister in the wake of the next election if he leads the Conservative party into that election and loses enough seats to make a Labour government viable. For this to happen, Boris Johnson needs to look like a likely election winner right the way to the general election, and then fall short in the heat of an election campaign. That’s not threading the eye of a needle but it’s not a likely scenario, particularly given that campaigning is seen as one of Boris Johnson’s strengths. I’d make this permutation about a 10% shot, at best. Honestly, I think that’s very much on the high side, given how poor his relationship is with his party. Boris Johnson needs to look like a winner to keep his job.
Finally, if Boris Johnson wins the next election, he will be Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party for the foreseeable future. That means that his replacement for each of those roles might be someone who is currently a longshot and quite possibly someone who is a new MP right now.
So, taking all these together, my own probability chart of Boris Johnson’s exit date is:
Before 1 July 2022: 15%
Between 1 July 2022 and the next election: 45%
At or in the wake of the next election: 10%
After the next election: 30%
Your estimates may differ, of course, but that’s my point for setting my reasoning out in detail, so you can see where you differ from me. If your estimates do differ from mine, you might well have some clearcut betting opportunities in the Boris Johnson exit date markets on Betfair.
To answer who, we have to look at each of the whens in turn. To keep things simple, I’ll stick to the next Prime Minister market.
In the next six months or so
If Boris Johnson goes quickly, he will be going in circumstances where he has clearly failed. The Conservative party will be in one of its periodic panics. They will be aware, and reminded, of the fact that they are not just choosing their party’s leader, they are choosing the country’s leader. They should be choosing someone with unquestionable gravitas, particularly given that one of the incumbent’s weaknesses is that he conspicuously lacks that. Since 1902 (when the role of First Lord of the Treasury was last separated from that of Prime Minister), every Prime Minister who has ascended to that position, as opposed to being elected, has in the past been Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer.
That means that the list of credible candidates is short. If they haven’t held one of the great offices of state, they’re going to need something outstanding to compensate. The current Conservative MPs who have held one of the great offices of state are as follows: Rishi Sunak; Liz Truss; Priti Patel; Dominic Raab; Sajid Javid; Jeremy Hunt; and Theresa May. If you treat Health Secretary as currently being one of the great offices of state, you could add Matt Hancock to the list. The only other candidate who could conceivably lay claim to the required experience is Michael Gove, given his experience and prominence. That’s a longlist of nine. I think we can safely discount both Matt Hancock and Theresa May, so that brings us down to a magnificent seven. If the contest is soon, that list of heavyweights will not lengthen.
Others probably would throw their hats into the ring. In 2019, we were treated to declared runs from Kit Malthouse, Sam Gyimah, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, James Cleverley, Matt Hancock, Rory Stewart and Mark Harper, none of whom had senior executive experience in government (many other MPs had a good sniff at the idea of running too, with 18 publicly declaring an interest in doing so). In such a contest, most could be safely laid once they had thrown their hat in the ring. Conservative MPs will be wanting to choose a serious candidate in the event of a trolley crash: serious in every sense of the word.
In the medium term, before the next election
Very similar considerations apply. However, other Cabinet ministers may conceivably be put in senior positions that make them worthy of consideration. In my view it’s worth keeping an eye on Kwasi Kwarteng and Alok Sharma in particular with that in mind. The Prime Minister seems to be advancing them.
As noted above, different timing affects the chances of different potential candidates differently.
At the election
Sir Keir Starmer’s only real chance is at the next election. If the next vacancy is before (or after) that, he won’t be the man to fill it. His price in this market, last matched on Betfair at 5.3, effectively is that Boris Johnson survives to the next election but then loses. For the reasons given above, I regard these odds as very unattractive. Sir Keir Starmer might well become Prime Minister after the next election, but if he does so, he is unlikely to have faced Boris Johnson. If Labour look like winning, Boris Johnson will not be allowed to lead the Conservatives into the next election.
Honestly, I don’t think this is worth speculating about too much. Looking at the Prime Ministers since the war who left office after winning another election, Margaret Thatcher was followed by someone who only became an MP as she became Prime Minister. Winston Churchill, Tony Blair and Theresa May on the other hand were followed in each case by the man who had been the obvious favourite within the party from the moment they became Prime Minister. Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson (the second time) and David Cameron were each followed by someone who had been at the highest level for years but who had always been overshadowed by more glamorous candidates. Anthony Eden was succeeded by the man who was probably most commentators’ second favourite. Only Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson (the first time) and John Major were replaced by the Leader of the Opposition.
That doesn’t tell us much, other than that the further into the future we look, the less predictable the outcome and that we might well be able to identify most contenders to be Boris Johnson’s likely replacement now, but there could yet be wildcards. At least five of the replacements of these 11 instances simply took their opportunity well when the moment arose.
Putting all this together
If, like me, you think that we are entering the autumn of Boris Johnson’s premiership, then the value in the Next Prime Minister market is going to be found among the obvious contenders. The Next Prime Minister market on Betfair currently has a 116% overround on the buy side, with no guarantee that the winner will come from among the names listed. However, many listed contenders are obvious no-hopers, and one of the favourites, Sir Keir Starmer, looks too short-priced to me (as noted above). By whittling down the list efficiently, you can do well. You might simply back all of my magnificent seven to weighted stakes at current Betfair prices (effectively getting a bet at roughly 8/11 with the prices at the time of writing that one of them will win) and consider you had a value bet.
Within that group, however, some represent better value than others. You can be pretty sure that Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Jeremy Hunt would all run. All would be serious contenders. None of them are hiding their ambition.
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have a curious inverted relationship. Liz Truss is adored by the party rank and file but since she has only just become Foreign Secretary there may well be a concern that she lacks the necessary experience. Later would be better for her, to dissipate that concern. Rishi Sunak’s popularity, conversely, is just starting to wane and is likely to wane further with national insurance rises coming and inflation starting to bite. He might well want a contest as soon as decently possible.
Jeremy Hunt is not in government at present and he would run as the analgesic candidate, seeking to soothe headaches. His challenge will be to persuade MPs and party members that he understands the Conservative party as it stands now, as opposed to 10 years ago. The further away a contest, the more distant is his experience of government and the less relevant he looks.
You might back just those three. You can do so for weighted stakes on Betfair, effectively getting a bet at better than 5/4. Right now, you’d have to think it’s odds-on that the winner will come from that trio. Of those three, Rishi Sunak might be favourite but his price of 4.1 (just over 3/1 in traditional form) still looks good: his relationship with his party as Chancellor is closer to Gordon Brown’s than to Philip Hammond’s or even George Osborne’s. We might well look back in a few years’ time and feel that his ascent to the top role was inevitable.
And the rest? Priti Patel and Sajid Javid are both playing their cards close to their chests. Both on the face of it would be serious candidates if they stood. Both, however, might well decide that their interests would be best served by offering their endorsement to the right candidate.
Dominic Raab is on paper second only to the Prime Minister in seniority. His star has dimmed in recent months. As things stand, he looks an outsider for next Conservative leader.
Michael Gove has maintained his authority. He stood in 2016 and 2019, finishing in third place both times. I could easily imagine him standing again. Certainly, he has been clearing the decks in advance of a possible run: he has separated from his wife and details of youthful indiscretions came out in September, making them old news by the time of any contest. He has shown twice that he can attract substantial support among MPs. That said, his authority is that of the political insider and he does not look like a natural to attract floating voters or indeed to persuade party members that he is their best electoral chance. He is said to be very self-aware and he might decide this time to back another candidate to lead the Conservative party.
If Boris Johnson goes before the next election, continuity candidates will struggle — by definition it will be seen as time for a change. Grasping this, none of the seven most likely candidates have allowed themselves to be seen as an obsequious acolyte. Nevertheless, Priti Patel would struggle to distance herself from Boris Johnson’s approach to immigration, which she largely embodies. She has shown no sign of having a solution for the perceived problems caused by disorderly immigration. Since immigration is (unfathomably at a time of labour shortages) one of the prime concerns of Conservative voters, this may prove an insuperable obstacle for her.
Liz Truss may suffer in a different way from continuity concerns. Her public persona is not that of a safe pair of hands, with her personality bursting through and constantly teetering on the edge of a gaffe. The party electorate may well be looking for someone safe after having spent years dealing with someone as exhausting as Boris Johnson. She will be majoring on her record of getting things done, especially trade deals, rather than her Christmas wishes to hedgehogs.
What would be the dominant motive of the party electorate when replacing the incumbent? In 2019, the Conservative party despaired, having smashed itself up on the rocks of Brexit. It went for what it knew was a risky choice. Next time, the Conservative party might feel able to indulge its own prejudices or it might look for a leader who maps well onto the coalition built in 2019. Rishi Sunak, who has for ideological reasons been keeping the purse strings as tight as he can, would be the obvious choice if the Conservatives are pleasing themselves. He would be a poor choice if they are trying to please their 2019 voters, who are looking for money to be spent on levelling up. Note, however, that the electorate will be MPs and party members, not voters.
Perhaps the party would be looking for a safe pair of hands. Three candidates would see themselves as positioned for this approach. Jeremy Hunt offers competence but like Rishi Sunak may look too sleek and comfortable for a scratchy electorate. Dominic Raab has not impressed the public and would probably be seen as a dull incompetent option. Michael Gove manages to be both a bit erratic and unloved by the public, but the party faithful would loyally serve under him.
That leaves Sajid Javid. When I was applying for my first job, one of my interviewers looked down my inadequately-completed CV and said: “frankly, Mr Meeks, you’ve got all the paper qualifications, but you’ve never done anything interesting, have you?” Sajid Javid suffers from the same problem at present. He has filled a series of top jobs without noticeably disgracing himself and without noticeably leaving much of an imprint. He has, however, impressed in his crisis management since taking over as Health Secretary and, sad to say, he is likely to have many more opportunities in the coming months to impinge on the public’s consciousness. Sajid Javid will need to take decisions as Health Secretary that alienate (one way or another) potential supporters. Nevertheless, his current price on Betfair of 40 for next Prime Minister looks generous. In my view, he has the most potential of the possibles. It’s easy to see how he could be the Jim Callaghan or John Major of the next leadership contest. He even has the working class credentials.
So far I’ve looked at who will be the permanent replacement for Boris Johnson. Given that I have not been willing to invest in Sir Keir Starmer’s chances, this discussion is really a discussion about next Conservative leader, though I’ve given the prices for next Prime Minister. As we shall see, I’ve been a little cavalier.
What of the next Prime Minister market? Past practice has been for ousted sitting Prime Ministers to stay in office awaiting their defenestration until their successor has been chosen. Both David Cameron and Theresa May accepted this humiliation in the national interest. So, for that matter, did Margaret Thatcher, though in her case this was a matter of days, not many weeks.
Would Boris Johnson do the same? He’s not exactly displayed much selflessness at any point in his career. There must be a real chance — perhaps a 10% chance — that he simply quits straightaway once his party’s MPs have voted to remove him.
What would happen then? Perhaps the grandees would alight on a unity figure, as they did in 2003 when replacing Iain Duncan Smith. But I doubt whether all the contenders would be so self-sacrificing. If so, a caretaker would be required.
The caretaker would have to be someone who was not seeking the permanent position, in order that they get no advantage from incumbency, no matter how temporary. They would also need to be senior and unifying across the party. There are three possible choices: Dominic Raab, Michael Gove and Steve Barclay. Dominic Raab, as deputy Prime Minister, would be the obvious choice, but it would require him to renounce any intention of seeking the permanent role. How’s that for a dilemma? If he and Michael Gove both decide to go for broke (and both have already shown that they consider themselves to be worthy candidates by standing previously), Steve Barclay might find himself an unlikely, if short term, Prime Minister. He’s available at 100/1 with Ladbrokes for next Prime Minister. It’s not the silliest bet.
Anyway, when betting on the next Prime Minister market, you need to keep this permutation in mind. It probably won’t happen, but we’ve seen plenty of improbable events happen in the last few years to remind us that nothing is inevitable.