Who will be the UK’s next prime minister?

Theresa May is out, but who replaces her is tricky to predict, says Brendan O’Leary of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Big Ben with united kingdom and european union flags

After more than two years of chaos surrounding the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May announced last week that she’ll leave office June 7, with no deal in sight. May’s departure sets off a fierce race to replace her, with nearly a dozen Conservative Party members currently in the mix. 

Penn Today talked with political science professor Brendan O’Leary, an outspoken observer of U.K. politics with strong opinions, to look at the race. A native of Ireland, O’Leary was a political adviser to Irish, British, and American officials during the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1980s and ‘90s. He has also worked with the E.U., United States, United Nations, and aid agencies on conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction around the world.

His new three-volume political history of Northern Ireland will be released in the U.S. in June.  


When we talked two months ago May's resignation seemed inevitable. Are you surprised by anything involving her resignation?

May I say that I was surprised that she lasted until the end of May? And that I was surprised at the stunningly low level of support for the Conservatives in the European parliamentary elections? Nine percent of the vote! I had expected them at least to muster 15%.

No matter how old I get, I am always surprised at the expressions of sympathy that accompany the resignation of an exceedingly unpopular and incompetent politician. It confirms that pity is among the worst of sentiments to be directed toward you. 

What's the process that's been set off here? How is May replaced?

There’s a dual process: first within the parliamentary party in the House of Commons, followed second by the votes of the individual party members. The procedure within the parliamentary party is technically known as a variant on exhaustive majority ballot. All the candidates have to receive two nominations from fellow members of parliament. 

Each Conservative MP has one vote. After the first ballot the last-placed candidate is eliminated. Successive ballots then continue until the field is winnowed down to two. These two winners then face off in public ‘hustings,’ as they are known in Great Britain, and the individual members vote by postal ballot to determine which of the two will become the party leader and then the presumptive candidate to become prime minister.  

I suspect we’ll not see nine rounds, as many candidates will be wise to withdraw after they receive derisory levels of support. 

Which candidates do you think are the most likely to succeed?

The bookmakers’ odds among the 11 candidates currently have Boris Johnson running in first place with a 33% chance of success, with the 11th place currently held by Kim Malthouse, the man known, if at all, for the ‘Malthouse Compromise.’ He figures with 1%. What he proposes is not in fact a compromise; it’s a proposal for ratting on the deal made between May and the European Union regarding ‘the Irish backstop.’ It’s probably not an accident that the name of this so-called compromise sounds as if it were manufactured in an alehouse. 

The question will be whether Johnson can be stopped from being one of the top two nominees. Conservative MPs know his weaknesses—which include lying, laziness, and lustfulness—much better than the general party members, but can they coordinate to ensure his elimination? If Johnson does make it as one of the two finalists then he is likely to defeat any other candidate with the mass members, currently said to be salivating for a ‘no deal’ exit. 

Most of the other candidates also have major embarrassments against their records. A notable exception is Rory Stewart. He’s intelligent and has the historic profile of a Tory leader—Eton, Oxford—and, more unusually, that of a Scot working as a governor of a Shiite province in Iraq during the Coalition Provisional Authority and writing a book about traveling through Afghanistan. His gravitas, however, is probably a disqualification on this occasion, as is his record of integrity and honesty. 

The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is distinguished for getting the ethnicity of his wife wrong—he called her Japanese, rather than Chinese, in front of his Chinese hosts—and for describing the E.U. as like the U.S.S.R., not an opinion that receives much endorsement east of the Elbe, nor one likely to improve the atmosphere in future negotiations. 

It will largely be a competition among fantasists, promising a better UKExit, when there is no good one available. The hardliners may back Dominic Raab, though he is wooden and has the honesty to admit that he did not know that the port of Dover was so important for U.K. exports and imports. Michael Gove is the most cunning of the self-styled ‘Brexiteers,’ but would you rely one someone who got you into this mess in the first place? He did crucify Johnson the last time around and may again perform the public service of rallying the anybody-but-Johnson crowd. 

Sajid Javid would be an interesting choice—the son of a Pakistani-origin bus driver—but I doubt if English Tories in the shires are going to endorse a Muslim as their leader, not if they are going to compete with the surging Brexit Party. 

May I say that I pity the Tories? They have to choose among fantasists and factotums.  Conservative leadership contests are like ‘Game of Thrones’—vicious and cruel—but they are not filmed in Northern Ireland, about which Conservatives typically know nothing while pretending to know everything. 

Does this recalibrate the odds of a clear-cut outcome? Or do you expect more of the same floundering around, given that all the elements that made UKExit difficult to negotiate still exist?

The legal choices before Halloween 2019 remain the same: May’s deal, the U.K. leaves the E.U. on Nov. 1 without a deal, or the U.K. rescinds Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and remains within the E.U. No prospective Tory leader is backing the last option. All will say they will do better than May in negotiations with the E.U. That is exceedingly improbable, but this is fantasy politics. 

The situation remains the same in the House of Commons. No majority for May’s deal or for leaving without a deal. Yet. The cynics are predicting another extension request, but, if it comes, I think that’s a demand that’s unlikely to be met. The E.U. leaders do not want Nigel Farage or Conservatives having any say in future leadership roles within the E.U., let alone policy. So, I think Oct. 31 is a hard deadline. Remind me when I’m wrong. 

A hard exit is now far more likely but with a festering mess after—an unpopular Conservative government with a deflated currency trying to negotiate a new relationship with the E.U. that will not be on offer unless and until they sign up to the withdrawal agreement, aka May’s deal, including the Irish backstop.

Will the new leader want a general election? He or she might want to take that risk to obtain their own mandate, but on what platform would they run? ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ was May’s mantra and look where that took her. Running on a platform which blames the nasty Europeans for all that has gone wrong would be par for the course, but will it work? 

We have yet to see what the candidates will say about their alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party, which they will need to renew to avoid losing a vote of confidence. The DUP prefers no deal to May’s deal but can’t openly and enthusiastically endorse that without losing support in Northern Ireland. Its members trust no one, so that will be an interesting foretaste of things to come. What bribe will Boris offer the DUP to live with a hard exit that will hurt Northern Ireland more than any other location? 

Does this increase or decrease the odds of a second referendum?

I am afraid that it decreases the chance of a referendum. No Tory leadership candidate has so far proposed a second referendum, and a rapid shift on the subject seems unlikely. Labour, having also received a drubbing at the polls, is now in favor of a second referendum, in which Remain would be on the ballot paper. But its maneuver can also be read as ensuring that the Tories will now face the costs of exit on their own. 

The new Tory leaders’ best prospect would be to take May's deal across the line with extra perks of various kinds for the DUP and Labour MPs who are retiring or who sit in districts that voted Leave. They would, however, have to spend all their political capital from their victory in performing this volte-face. May will then have fallen on her sword to see her deal go through. 

Who will be the next E.U. Commission president?

I’d place a small wager on Michele Barnier. He’s a better and more experienced candidate than the leading candidate of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber. He’s the U.K.’s nemesis and would keep the commission tightly in line on the terms of the U.K.’s withdrawal. And I think the German leadership are in for a surprise; German candidates will not be popular for their partners either as presidents of the European Bank or as president of the commission. But what about president of the European Council? Well, Angela Merkel is scheduled to retire as chancellor of Germany. 

Brendan O’Leary is the Lauder Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.