The Financial Times looks at the likely contenders in a future Conservative party leadership contest.
Boris Johnson's collapsing political fortunes can be measured in many ways. Struggling to contain Covid-19 and the fallout from a series of scandals, the UK prime minister's public approval ratings have dived to a record low of minus 42 this month, according to pollster YouGov.
His popularity among Conservative activists, according to an influential ConservativeHome survey, has slumped. It puts Johnson on minus 17 per cent, compared with foreign secretary Liz Truss's plus 82.
But perhaps most ominously for Johnson, his mishandling of scandals from parliamentary sleaze to last year's Downing Street Christmas parties during lockdown now make him the target of abuse among ordinary voters. "Stand up if you hate Boris," went the chant at a packed World Darts Championship in London on Monday.
Johnson has bounced back before and is a proven election winner but he ends 2021 in deep trouble; many Tory MPs are giving him until next May's local elections to turn things round. But if he fails, who might come next?
The calm contender, betting odds 2/1
The chancellor won plaudits for his £400 billion economic Covid rescue package and is revered by Treasury officials; Tory MPs contrast the calm emanating from 11 Downing Street with the chaos next door.
The 41-year-old has been quietly building up support among Tory MPs from the 2019 intake and listening to their concerns. "I've had four one-to-one meetings with him," said one MP.
Sunak, through anonymous briefings, has "let it be known" to potential supporters that he opposed some of Johnson's Covid restrictions and that he is frustrated with the lack of professionalism at Number 10.
The former Goldman Sachs analyst has made enemies in the Johnson camp and he remains relatively inexperienced. His trip to California last week as Omicron coronavirus cases rose in the UK was criticised by Labour.
Tory MPs also note with some scepticism Sunak's insistence that he is a "low tax Tory" desperate to cut income tax before the election, even as he raises the overall UK tax burden to its highest level since 1950.
The chancellor backed Brexit, a policy that the Office for Budget Responsibility said has left the country poorer than would otherwise have been the case. He is paying the economic price.
The freedom flag waver, odds 9/2
The foreign secretary, according to one Tory MP, has a very clear political strategy that she pursues with dogged determination: "She tries to look like Margaret Thatcher and says 'freedom' a lot." It seems to be working.
Largely written off by some as a not-very-serious politician — her 2014 speech about the "disgrace" of the UK being a high-volume cheese importer went viral — she has become a leading contender.
She used her previous job as international trade secretary to fly the flag for global Britain, even if the trade deals she signed were often "copy and paste" versions of deals the UK already enjoyed as part of the EU. Party members adore her.
Her reward in September was a promotion to foreign secretary. This week Johnson added the job of rebuilding EU relations and sorting out the mess over Northern Ireland after the resignation of Brexit minister Lord David Frost. It is her biggest test.
Truss, a 46-year-old Remainer, has courted Tory rightwingers over drinks at a private members club by championing free trade, low taxes and a post-Brexit tilt in foreign policy to Asia-Pacific.
She also lets Tory MPs know she is uncomfortable with Johnson's Covid restrictions. George Osborne, former Tory chancellor, described Truss this week as "capable", but she still has doubters. "She's so un-self-aware that she thinks she has a chance," said one senior Conservative.
The reluctant racer, odds 6/1
Gove professes he no longer holds ambitions for higher office and he has publicly declared he will not run again. "He's done with that, he genuinely sees that ship as having sailed," said one colleague.
Yet the levelling up secretary remains a possible contender, having come third in the 2019 leadership contest. And some MPs are hopeful he could be persuaded. "Michael's pitch would essentially be 'I can get levelling up done and ensure we don't lose the red wall back to Labour'," one person said.
But some Tory strategists question whether his poor standing with voters makes him a viable contender. Moreover, despite being one of the main faces, along with Johnson, of the Brexit campaign, Gove's reputation among MPs and activists has been tarnished by his enthusiasm for Covid restrictions. "Michael won't be happy until everyone is locked up at home," joked one cabinet colleague.
But as one of the most respected cabinet ministers — praised by Tories for his revolutionary zeal at the education and environment departments — he may prove attractive if the Johnson government collapses in a heap of unfulfilled election promises.
Unlike the other top contenders, Gove, 54, is not known to have courted MPs privately. "He's just getting on with the job," said one ally.
The dark horses
The 'I told you so' candidate, odds 9/1
Seen by Tory MPs as having a "good bedside manner", the former foreign and health secretary would offer a moderate change of style to the current prime minister.
Hunt, chair of the House of Commons health committee, was beaten by Johnson for the Tory leadership in 2019 and is seen by some as too bland and too "southern" — he represents the constituency of South West Surrey just outside London — to lead the modern Tory party. "He would be the 'I told you so' candidate if Boris falls," one supporter said.
The comeback kid, odds 16/1
The health secretary has held multiple cabinet jobs — including chancellor for a few months — but now has the task of steering the country through a potential winter crisis in the NHS as the Omicron variant takes hold.
His allies say Javid is not "on manoeuvres" or courting MPs. One said that would be "totally inappropriate" given the current health crisis. As with Gove, his advocacy of tighter Covid restrictions has angered the Tory right.
The grassroots' option, odds 22/1
A latter-day Norman Tebbit — the vociferously rightwing minister under Margaret Thatcher — the home secretary is popular with some grassroots sections of the Tory party and could run on an avowedly pro-Brexit platform — combined with a tough stance on law and order and immigration.
But some colleagues are sceptical of Patel's credentials. "I'm worried if she gets into the final two she could win with the members," one MP noted. "But she's fallen on her face in the Home Office, it would be even worse in Number 10."
How does the Conservative party elect its leader?
Triggering a Conservative party leadership contest requires 15 per cent of its MPs to submit private letters of no confidence in the leader, which are held by the chair of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, Sir Graham Brady. As it stands, that amounts to 54 Tories.
If the threshold is reached, a confidence vote is held. If the leader emerges victorious, as Theresa May did in a 2018 challenge, a vote cannot be held again for another year. But if they lose, a full contest commences in which the incumbent is eligible to stand.
If there are more than two candidates nominated, a series of ballots take place among MPs over several days to whittle down the selection to the final two. This is followed by a longer contest to secure the majority of the votes from Conservative party members, with the candidates holding a series of public hustings across the country.
During the first stages of the contest in the 2019 race won by Boris Johnson, a field of 10 candidates was rapidly whittled by MPs. By the time the final race commenced between Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the former had the support of an overwhelming majority of Tory MPs and activists were confident the outcome was all but certain.
Written by: George Parker and Sebastian Payne
© Financial Times