Is Rishi Sunak facing a potential leadership contest and who could replace him? Tory MPs call for PM to quit

Rishi Sunak's position as prime minister hasn't yet been formally challenged — but he remains under significant pressure (PA)
Rishi Sunak's position as prime minister hasn't yet been formally challenged — but he remains under significant pressure (PA)

Conservative MPs opposing Rishi Sunak's leadership are reportedly hoping he will resign willingly to prevent a disastrous coup. They see the local elections in May as a potential turning point, according to the Guardian.

They have reportedly told Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, of their desire for Mr Sunak to resign. However, they have not yet submitted letters of no confidence.

The former minister claimed that after the party suffered two significant by-election losses last week, no new public challenges had surfaced. The Guardian claimed this suggested that Downing Street was becoming too comfortable with the risk that Mr Sunak faced.

Tory MP Sir Simon Clarke in January become the latest figure to call for Mr Sunak to be replaced, branding his leadership "uninspiring".

The former Cabinet minister, who served during Liz Truss's shortlived leadership, warned that the prime minister would lead the party towards disaster at the next election unless something changed.

Sharing his thoughts in the Telegraph, Sir Simon said: “We need a leader who shares instincts of the majority.”

He also highlighted Mr Sunak's trailing support in contrast to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer — and blamed the PM for the Tores’ shortcomings.

Sir Simon Clarke in January 2024 launched a scathing attack on Mr Sunak’s ‘uninspiring leadership’ (PA Archive)
Sir Simon Clarke in January 2024 launched a scathing attack on Mr Sunak’s ‘uninspiring leadership’ (PA Archive)

"It is now beyond doubt that whilst the prime minister is far from solely responsible for our present predicament, his uninspiring leadership is the main obstacle to our recovery," Sir Simon added.

His op-ed prompted a mixed response from his peers, with some political figures posting memes about it on social media.

Tobias Ellwood criticised Sir Simon, saying: “He’s throwing his teddies in the corner.... it’s dangerous, reckless, selfish & defeatist... he should keep quiet along with his colleagues.”

Postal affairs minister Kevin Hollinrake similarly shunned the idea, telling BBC Radio: "There will be no new leadership election."

Sir Simon's calls for Mr Sunak to be replaced were the latest in a long line of challenges facing the prime minister.

In January, 60 rebel MPs opposed Mr Sunak's Rwanda bill, threatening to vote against the policy unless more stringent measures were added to the immigration proposal. Mr Sunak survived the rebellion and the bill comfortably passed its third reading. However, further challenges lay ahead as the House of Lords voted to delay the bill's progress.

At this point, Mr Sunak's position hasn't been formally challenged. But let's look at who could replace him should a vote of no confidence be called eventually.

Who could replace Rishi Sunak as prime minister?

Kemi Badenoch

Kemi Badenoch has the backing of senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove (Justin Tallis/PA Wire)
Kemi Badenoch has the backing of senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove (Justin Tallis/PA Wire)

The Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi Badenoch, has risen through the Tory ranks at an impressive pace in the last few years.

Considered among potential frontrunners to be party leader, she has earned the support of several leading MPs, including Michael Gove. What's more, in the last Cabinet league table of 2023, she was ranked number one.

Ms Badenoch hasn't shied away from being in the public eye and has been vocal about several Tory policies. She has also locked horns with other Tory MPs in the past, most notably defending decisions to scale back post-Brexit plans to scrap EU laws.

James Cleverly

James Cleverly has enjoyed an upward trajectory since becoming home secretary (PA)
James Cleverly has enjoyed an upward trajectory since becoming home secretary (PA)

In December 2023, James Cleverly replaced Suella Braverman as home secretary, continuing his upward trajectory in the party. A popular figure among Conservatives, an experienced politician as well as an articulate speaker, some may see Mr Cleverly as a solid option to replace Mr Sunak and encourage unity in the ranks.

Mr Cleverly also played a key role in the Rwanda bill, having travelled to Kigali to sign the asylum treaty. With the future of the bill still uncertain after the Lords voted against its ratification, that might not play to his advantage.

Suella Braverman

Suella Braverman was sacked as home secretary in 2023 and is known to have leadership ambitions (Justin Tallis/PA Wire)
Suella Braverman was sacked as home secretary in 2023 and is known to have leadership ambitions (Justin Tallis/PA Wire)

Former home secretary Suella Braverman is a controversial figure due to her rhetoric on migration, rough sleepers, and Brexit.

At the same time, she has continued positioning herself as a prospective party leader and delivered some fiery political speeches that garnered applause from Conservative audiences. As a result, she could be a prime candidate to be the next leader. She also criticised Mr Sunak in 2023 after he sacked her, calling him "weak".

Seen as one of the most divisive Tories in the Commons, Ms Braverman was one of the rebels during January’s Rwanda vote. However, her divisiveness might not help her in a leadership contest — especially how much unity the party lacks.

Tom Tugendhat

Tom Tugendhat is part of the One Nation wing of the Tory Party (PA Wire)
Tom Tugendhat is part of the One Nation wing of the Tory Party (PA Wire)

Security minister Tom Tugendhat came fifth in the 2022 leadership contest to replace Boris Johnson. He was among those who received the highest satisfaction rating in the Cabinet league table of December 2023.

Part of the liberal-leaning One Nation group, Mr Tugendhat and others in this Tory tribe have had diminished influence since the early Brexit days. He is a less likely leadership figure compared with other heavyweights on this list. The recent rebellion Mr Sunak faced suggests that more right-leaning figures wield a lot of power in the party.

Penny Mordaunt

Penny Mordaunt has already tried twice to lead the Conservative Party (PA Wire)
Penny Mordaunt has already tried twice to lead the Conservative Party (PA Wire)

Penny Mordaunt has already tried to become party leader twice — and there's a strong chance she won’t stop there.

She is the leader of the House of Commons and a strong public speaker who could appeal to a wide audience, including more centrist MPs.

She also earned herself a standing ovation for her speech at the 2023 Tory Party Conference and had a prominent role at King Charles's coronation when she carried the ceremonial sword. However, her failed leadership bids suggest she would have to work hard to gain the backing required.

Priti Patel

Dame Priti Patel has been out of the Cabinet since 2022 and may be planning a return as prime minister (PA Wire)
Dame Priti Patel has been out of the Cabinet since 2022 and may be planning a return as prime minister (PA Wire)

The former home secretary has kept a relatively low profile since she resigned from the Cabinet in 2022. Yet, as a well-known senior Tory figure, could she be eyeing a leadership role in the future?

In any leadership contest, Ms Patel could be a less hard-line alternative to Ms Braverman if they were to go head-to-head. This could work to her advantage, helping Ms Patel unite the party at a crucial juncture.

At the same time, Ms Patel also made headlines over bullying allegations in her office, which might be a hard-to-shake-off reputation.