The Conservative leadership contest has another six weeks to run before the UK has its next prime minister, but Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have already earmarked key allies for potential top roles in government.
Both leadership campaigns insist no job offers have been made and that it is premature to discuss who might serve in either contender’s cabinet. But the Financial Times has spoken to several influential MPs from both teams who said it was clear which close allies would receive senior ministerial posts.
If Truss, the foreign secretary, wins the contest — she is the bookmakers’ favourite and has topped several polls of Tory party members — her cabinet would have a similar political flavour to Boris Johnson’s outgoing government.
Much like her backers among Conservative MPs, a Truss government would be chiefly populated with pro-Brexit figures from the right of the party. Not all of her MPs supporters are Leave figures, but the Tory right has coalesced around her candidacy.
Thérèse Coffey, work and pensions secretary under Johnson who chairs Truss’s leadership bid, is tipped for a cabinet promotion. The MP for Suffolk Coastal was in the same 2010 intake as the foreign secretary and they have been close since they met during their parliamentary selections.
Liz Truss’s key backers (left to right)
Kwasi Kwarteng, 47
Influential cabinet supporter of Truss. Currently business secretary, previously energy and junior Brexit minister. MP since 2010.
Thérèse Coffey, 50
Chair of Truss’s leadership campaign and longstanding friend and ally. Currently work and pensions secretary, previously junior environment minister. MP since 2010.
Simon Clarke, 37
Early supporter of Truss’s leadership bid. Presently chief secretary to the Treasury, previously local government minister. MP since 2017.
The 50-year-old is seen a potential candidate for the key Cabinet Office minister’s role, acting as the prime minister’s fixer. “Liz and Thérèse are close personally and work well together, said one MP who knows both women well.
Truss’s other two key backers in Johnson’s cabinet — business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and Simon Clarke, chief secretary to the Treasury — are more ardent Brexiters. Both are seen as possible contenders for chancellor, the second most powerful job in government.
Truss allies suggested Kwarteng was the favourite. The 47-year-old’s links to Truss date back to 2012, when the pair co-authored a pamphlet, Britannia Unchained, advocating free market solutions for reforming the economy.
Kwarteng also entered parliament in 2010 but, unlike Truss, his ministerial career did not initially flourish. As a Brexit supporter, however, he rose quickly through the ranks under Johnson. A Truss ally said: “Liz and Kwasi are on exactly the same page on economics.”
Clarke, the MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland since he was elected in 2017, has been tipped by some in Truss’s circle as a potential chancellor but others said that he was more likely to replace Kwarteng as business secretary.
Clarke was one of the first senior ministers to back Truss’s candidacy, even before she announced she was running for the leadership.
A Truss government would also include talents from across the party, her allies said, with both Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat, tipped for senior roles. She would also look to promote members of the 2019 intake to refresh the junior ministerial ranks, including Dehenna Davison, MP for Bishop Auckland.
If Sunak enjoys a surge in support in coming weeks and wins the contest, his cabinet would have a markedly different political feel to both Johnson and Truss.
One longstanding Tory party observer said: “Rishi’s cabinet would be more centrist than Liz’s, but the centre of the Tory party has shifted to the right. It’s not like we’re heading back to David Cameron’s days,” referring to the former UK prime minister who resigned in 2016 after losing the EU referendum.
Oliver Dowden, until recently Conservative party chair, is almost certain to get a senior role. The pair are longstanding friends. There were no surprises among Tory MPs when Sunak turned to the 43-year-old to chair his campaign.
Rishi Sunak’s key backers (left to right)
Steve Barclay, 50
Close Sunak ally during his time as chancellor. Is now health secretary. Previously served as Boris Johnson’s chief of staff and Brexit secretary. MP since 2010.
Oliver Dowden, 43
Chair of Sunak’s campaign, former Tory party chair and culture secretary. Previously worked in David Cameron’s Number 10, MP since 2015,
Mel Stride, 60
Parliamentary organiser for Sunak’s campaign. Chair of the Treasury select committee, previously leader of the Commons and longstanding Treasury minister. MP since 2010.
One Sunak ally suggested Dowden, who was previously culture secretary, could be appointed to the Cabinet Office as a de facto deputy prime minister. “Rishi will want Oliver close by him in government, there’s total trust,” the pro-Sunak MP said.
Health secretary Steve Barclay is the favourite to become chancellor. The 50-year-old has worked closely with Sunak in several ministerial roles, including as Johnson’s chief of staff.
Two allies of Sunak said it was “very likely” that Barclay would get the top Treasury job, citing his two previous roles in the finance ministry as chief secretary and economic minister.
One MP who has worked with Sunak said: “Rishi will be all over the Treasury and whoever it is will need to be someone he totally trusts. He might be the first prime minister to have a Bloomberg terminal installed in his private office.”
The third senior Sunak ally likely to receive a significant role is Mel Stride, chair of the Treasury select committee. The 60-year-old served as a Treasury minister in Theresa May’s government and briefly as leader of the House of Commons.
Stride has led the successful whipping operation that saw Sunak come top of each round of voting among Tory MPs in the leadership contest and is a top contender for government chief whip.
Sunak would also refresh junior ministerial ranks with several younger backers of his leadership, including Claire Coutinho, Laura Trott and Jacob Young, tipped for prominent roles.